Sino-American relations have been tested in recent times. The continuing dispute over territory in the South China Sea and increasing US military activity in the region the main points of contention. However, there have been signs of late that China’s patience with their erratic neighbor has been wearing thin. A nuclear test close to its border and the apparent assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s brother in an airport in Malaysia have soured relations between the historically allied nations. Will this be the trigger for unity between the US and China on the North Korea threat?

  • US China relations improved
  • Pyongyang frustrates Beijing
  • China sends ambassador to discuss with US
  • Obstacles to cooperation remain

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Trump’s strong words left many in China angered and it seemed eventual confrontation was inevitable. Rhetoric regarding the South China Sea disputes added to this anger. Trump’s subsequent call with the leader of Taiwan, bringing into question the US’ acceptance of the one-China policy, substituted anger for incandescence.

It is perhaps to Trump’s credit, then, how relations between the two superpowers have warmed since that inauspicious start. Trump had a successful call with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, in which support of the one-China policy was confirmed. The policy has been a cornerstone in the maintenance of cordiality between the country for years.

In light of the highly aggressive and unpredictable activity of North Korea, the two countries are showing signs that further cooperation will be necessary.

Kim Jong-Un testing limits of Chinese patience

The nuclear test close to China’s southern border last year brought concern to the wider public in China. Now, Kim Jong-Nam’s apparent assassination, using chemical weapons, has created diplomatic and economic tensions between North Korea and Malaysia, as well as Indonesia and Vietnam (two of Pyongyang’s main trade partners). As a result, China’s ability to support North Korea as a reliable ally has diminished.

On February 18, China’s Ministry of Commerce declared an immediate ban on North Korean imports, effective until the end of the year. Coal is its largest export item and China accounts for more than 90 per cent of North Korea’s foreign trade. This represents a significant move by Beijing, leaving Pyongyang’s economy greatly weakened.

The response of North Korea did little to assuage concerns in China. It accused its closest ally of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” Many observers were so shocked by the statement they questioned its veracity.

China’s top diplomat visits the White House

On Monday, in a signal of the improved ties between the US and China, State Councillor Yang Jiechi met U.S. President Donald Trump’s team. It is the first high-level meeting between the world’s two biggest economies since Trump took office.

Yang conveyed greetings from President Xi Jinping in the meeting with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and senior adviser Jared Kushner at the White House. He also told Trump that China and the U.S. should seek cooperation on issues in the region and respect each other’s interests.

While much of the detail of the meeting is decorative, the significance of the visit is not lost on observers: “Certainly it is positive for a new U.S. leader to meet with China’s top diplomat,” said Graham Webster, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center.

Obstacles between US and China remain

There are a number of issues that threaten to derail the recent detente. Despite the improving of ties, China is steadfast in its objection to the US decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. In addition, annual US military drills with South Korea have also been renewed.

Furthermore, a future dissolution of the North-South divide is seen as a direct threat to its own security. With many North Koreans expected to flood across the border in such a scenario and the potential for US military presence on it’s footsteps, such an outcome is far off. Yet if Trump is willing to make concessions on trade while using North Korea as a bargaining chip, there is progress to be made.

What is clear is that China remains the key to the Pyongyang problem.