BEIJING — Two days after North Korea defied the international community by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, hope for a unified response is fading as the Trump administration’s plans meet with firm opposition from Russia and China.
President Trump warned Thursday that he’s considering “some pretty severe things” in response to what he called “very, very bad behavior” from the North, though he did not mention any specific plans.
“Something will have to be done about it,” he said in a speech in Warsaw.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused China and Russia of “holding the hands” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Haley chided Beijing and Moscow for not supporting a resolution that would tighten sanctions and hinted that the United States is considering the use of force. “One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces,” Haley said.
Her words were met with criticism from Vladimir Safronkov, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who called stricter sanctions “not acceptable” and military action “inadmissible.”
At a daily press conference in Beijing on Thursday, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry backed him up, calling for calm in response to Haley’s comments and reiterating long-standing Chinese positions.
With key players at odds, Trump must now find a way forward as he heads into Group of 20 meetings in Germany this week. He is expected to have his second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his first with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.
After his first meeting with Xi in April, Trump came out confident that China was on his side and would pressure Pyongyang to stop building weapons. That plan, as he recently tweeted, “has not worked out.”
In recent weeks, Trump has stepped up his criticism of China. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” he tweeted Wednesday, without noting the source of the statistic. “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”
But U.S. tough talk seems unlikely to bring Beijing on its side, experts said.
The U.S. response to the ICBM test so far has encompassed joint military exercises with the South Koreans, calls for stricert sanctions on countries doing business with North Korea and high-level warnings of military action — all of which are at odds with Chinese plans.
It’s not that China doesn’t care about the North Korean threat — it does — but that it sees it differently, analysts said.
Beijing and Pyongyang were once, as Mao Zedong put it, “as close as lips and teeth,” communist brothers-in-arms at war with American forces. Those days are long gone, but the memory of the 1950-1953 Korean War looms large.
The fact that thousands of U.S. soldiers are still stationed in South Korea is a sore point for Beijing, which would rather not have the American military at their doorstep, experts said. The Chinese side often sees U.S. moves in South Korea, from joint exercises to missile defense as maneuvers designed to counter Chinese military might.
Indeed, the “double suspension” plan pitched by China and Russia in the wake of the ICBM test calls for the United States and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises and for North Korea to freeze its weapons programs.
Over the years, Trump has said again and again that China is the key to squeezing the regime into submission. However, China does not appear willing to topple Kim.
“It’s not very likely that China will follow the will of the U.S. and put a ‘heavy move’ on North Korea, like what President Trump has called for,” said Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based expert on North Korea.
“It would expand sanctions, but there is a bottom line and the bottom line is that it won’t sanction North Korea such that it causes chaos in the North,” he added.
Lastly, Beijing does not have the same sense of urgency when it comes to the North Korea. China has always been in reach of North Korea’s military, so the development of an ICBM is not a game-changer.
Plus, China’s leadership remains focused on domestic political issues, namely key political meetings set for the fall, said Michael Kovrig, a Beijing-based senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, and officials are unlikely to make any move that could threaten their bases of support.
“Chinese analysts continue to argue that no amount of pressure, short of what might cause a collapse, will bring North Korea to denuclearize,” Kovrig said.
“Beijing’s prescription is still to coax rather than to pressure. Unlike the U.S., it’s not in a hurry and hopes that economic incentives can gradually induce Pyongyang to moderate its behavior.”