Trump wants China to fix North Korea, but it isn't going to happen

Key Points
  • Trump has blamed China for not taking a harsher stance on North Korea, but Beijing may have already lost much of its ability to influence the rogue state
  • China called for a halt to the U.S.'s THAAD deployment in South Korea, and for its removal
  • The THAAD system is the only facility in the region that could bring down a missile from North Korea
  • China has cooperated with United Nation sanctions
President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping chat as they walk along the front patio of the Mar-a-Lago estate after a bilateral meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 7, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

In yet another move resisting President Donald Trump's repeated demands to rein in North Korea, China not only refused to immediately condemn the rogue nation for its missile launch over Japan on Tuesday, but again called for the removal of the only viable projectile defense in the region.

Although Trump has blamed China for not taking a harsh stance toward the consistently belligerent North Korea, the Asian giant may have already lost its ability to influence the rogue state.

So instead of making Kim Jong Un's regime back down, Beijing is actually pushing for Seoul to remove its best defense.

That is, the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea is the only asset in the region that could bring down a missile coming out of North Korea, but China seems determined to see it removed. The defense shield, which was paid for and supplied by the United States, is designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles in mid-air.

A day after the missile traveled over Japan, China called for an immediate halt to THAAD deployment and for the removal of related facilities in comments from its United Nations ambassador. In the statement, China blamed THAAD deployment for jeopardizing geopolitical balance and "undermining the strategic security interest of all regional countries, including China."

China isn't all that close to North Korea anymore

According to some analysts, security concerns may be what's driving China's opposition to THAAD deployment in the Korean peninsula — Beijing fears that the defense system's powerful radar gives Washington and Seoul the ability to monitor China's military activities.

Beijing could also be harboring broader worries about an improvement in U.S.-South Korea relations, which might threaten China's global position, said Thomas Karako, senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"China doesn't like the closeness of the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea," Karako said.

"The missile defence is a technical and symbolic representation of the alliance, and China wants to use the North Korean threat to drive a wedge in the alliance," he added.

China might also be seeking to avoid a crisis that could result from a breakdown of Pyongyang's regime. A regime collapse would not be in China's interest, as it could bring a wave of refugees flooding into China, said Chin-Hao Huang, assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College.

Difficult to see N.Korea dialogue work: Control Risks
Difficult to see N.Korea dialogue work: Control Risks

All of those concerns aside, people may have been asking the wrong question about China all along, according to Huang. He cited the example of China's statement that the situation with Pyongyang was at a "tipping point."

"What the statement indicates is that China is actually quite frustrated as well," Huang said.

"The assumption a lot of us have is that China has excessive influence on the North Korean regime. In reality, I think what [the statement] shows is that the Chinese also cannot control Kim Jong Un," Huang added.

Notably, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping have yet to meet in person — an unprecedented situation in China-North Korea relations, since the personal relationship between heads of state has historically been very important, according to Huang.

"That they haven't' met shows mistrust that has emerged in the past years between the two countries," he said.

But China isn't necessarily against North Korea, either

Earlier this year, Beijing engaged in a set of actions that have hit Seoul's economy and businesses — like clamping down on South Korean company Lotte's China operations, blocking online trade and banning tourist travel to the South — allegedly as a form of protest to THAAD deployment in the region.

For some, China's opposition to THAAD deployment reflects the country's broader hesitation in taking a harsh stance toward North Korea.

Already, Trump has repeatedly expressed his frustration with China over what he perceives to be the Asian giant's unwillingness to control the rogue nation. Last Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against Chinese and Russian entities in a bid to pressure North Korea.

Chinese state media has lashed out at the U.S. over those "unjust" sanctions.

Still, China has also appeared to be cooperating with international efforts to pressure the North into giving up its weapons program in recent weeks.

Notably, Beijing agreed to ban imports of North Korean iron, lead, and coal as part of new U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang earlier this month. Trade between the two countries is also down.

In July, China imported and exported goods worth $456.16 million with North Korea, down from $489 million in June.