The coming clash with China over North Korea

By Josh Rogin / November 6, 2016 / The Washington Post

If Hillary Clinton is elected, her national security team plans to urgently address the growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. That would surely raise tensions on the Korean peninsula — and it could also lead to an early and acrimonious confrontation between a Clinton administration and the Chinese government of Xi Jinping.

Xi is staunchly opposed to Clinton’s plan to drastically increase sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Un. At the Munich Security Conference Core Group meeting here last week, Chinese officials and experts delivered a clear and unequivocal message to the visiting Westerners: China will not take any steps against Pyongyang that might increase the chance of a confrontation with the North Korean regime or encourage regime change on China’s border.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui said that although China might endorse a limited U.N. Security Council resolution in response to North Korea’s recent provocations, there’s no Chinese appetite for further pressure. The Chinese rationale is simple: Beijing values stability on the Korean peninsula more than it fears the growing prospect that North Korea will succeed in its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power capable of striking the West.

“China will never allow war or chaos on the peninsula, and if that occurs that will help no one,” Zhang said. “We need to bring the issue back to the track of dialogue and consultation.”

In Washington, there’s bipartisan consensus that returning to the negotiating table without significantly more leverage against the Kim regime would be a futile and perhaps even dangerous misstep. At best, it would only repeat a failed pattern of bribing the North Korean government into a short-term pause in its mischief.

Top Clinton foreign policy advisers have been open about their intention to apply to North Korea a version of the playbook the Obama administration used with Iran. They are promising to drastically increase sanctions on Pyongyang before sitting down at the table. They are also considering secondary sanctions on foreign firms that enable North Korea’s illicit industries, which means punishing Chinese companies keeping Kim’s nuclear and missile industries afloat.

For the Chinese government, both of those ideas are seen as direct assaults on China’s primacy over an issue it considers a core interest. Rather than respond to the threat of sanctions by leaning on its client state, Beijing is more likely to buck Washington and fight back against the new policy. Read more…

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