Sanction China over North Korea? The cases for and against

Nikki Haley, President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, says the United States has “multiple forms” of “ammunition” yet to use to stop North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile threats.

And among the weapons the US holds in its quiver, the Trump administration’s tough cop on foreign policy says, is trade retaliation against China.

If Beijing fails to do more – or undermines international efforts to do more – to pressure Pyongyang over its advancing nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, the US will slap the Chinese with punitive economic measures to encourage them to reconsider.

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That, at least, is the position Ms. Haley has advanced over the past week since North Korea jarred the world with what some have called a “game changer” when it successfully launched an ICBM on July 4.

First at an emergency UN Security Council meeting Wednesday, then on Sunday TV news programs, Haley presented China with an ultimatum: Either you do more to stop North Korea, or we will come after you.

But would such an aggressive stance toward China work?

Some former officials with sanctions experience under the Obama administration think it could. They point to the way so-called “secondary sanctions” prompted action by affected countries – including China – that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

The problem many analysts with long experience in Northeast Asia see is that China has much higher stakes in North Korea than in Iran. So similar measures targeting China are unlikely to achieve the intended goal, they say, while alienating the one power that does hold sway with the North’s Kim regime.


“The assumption here is that if we thump the Chinese with a trade war or some other tough measures they’ll get the message and really turn the screws on North Korea, but I don’t think it’s going to work,” says James Walsh, a North Korea expert and senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program in Cambridge, Mass.

“When you slap people,” he adds, “they mostly just get ticked at you.”

The bottom line, Dr. Walsh says, is that the US is never likely to do enough to punish the Chinese (the world’s second-largest economy and America’s largest trading partner) to force them to reassess what they care about most – avoiding a collapsed North…

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