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Why Relying on China to Stop North Korea May Not Work

BEIJING — President Trump has often said he is counting on Xi Jinping to do the right thing with North Korea, alternately praising and prodding the Chinese leader about enforcing tougher sanctions, and even holding off on his campaign promises to get tough on trade in the hope Mr. Xi follows through.

To his frustration, however, Mr. Xi has proved adept at taking incremental steps while always stopping short of the more punishing measures that the White House believes would truly threaten the North Korean regime and force it to scrap its nuclear arsenal.

The pattern is a familiar one. Other American presidents turned to China to solve the North Korea problem too, and were generally disappointed. But with the North closing in on a nuclear missile that can hit the United States, there has never been more riding on this strategy.

Mr. Trump arrived in China on Wednesday for the stiffest test yet of his audacious bet: that by cultivating Mr. Xi and offering him concessions, like delaying punitive trade moves, he can persuade him to move against North Korea in a way that none of his predecessors have.

Yet it may be a gamble based on a fundamental misreading of Beijing’s influence over North Korea and especially its young leader, Kim Jong-un, under whom relations between the erstwhile allies have steadily deteriorated.

China, some analysts argue, just does not have the leverage over North Korea that Mr. Trump thinks it has.

“There are big differences in the way of thinking between the United States and China on North Korea,” said Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry negotiator on North Korea. “Trump thinks of North Korea too simplistically — that if China cuts off the oil, the nuclear issue will be solved.”

Mr. Trump, a senior administration official said, plans to call on Mr. Xi to cut off oil exports to North Korea, at least temporarily; to close down North Korean bank accounts in China; and to send home tens of thousands of North Koreans who work in China.

Speaking in South Korea earlier Wednesday, Mr. Trump made an impassioned call for China and other countries to pull together to confront the North, which he described as a sinister regime that starved and terrorized its people — a tragic failed experiment in the “laboratory of history.”

“It is our responsibility and our duty to confront this danger together because the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows, and the fewer the options become,” he said to the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament.

“To those nations that choose to ignore this threat or, worse still, to enable it, the weight of this crisis is on your conscience,” said Mr. Trump, who tried to travel to the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between the North and South but had to turn back after fog grounded his helicopter.

Mr. Trump has invested heavily in the relationship with Mr. Xi, often speaking of him in unusually flattering terms for an American president describing a Chinese Communist strongman. And despite his strident criticism of China’s trade practices, he has offered Mr. Xi an unspoken quid pro quo that Washington would hold off on major trade action against Beijing.

“Trump somewhat naïvely calculated that China would be more helpful on North Korea if he was ‘magnanimous’ on trade; I doubt Beijing sees it that way,” said Matthew P. Goodman, a political economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser on Asian economics in the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

At the start of this trip, Trump administration officials denied the president was willing to make concessions on trade in the hope of extracting what was needed on North Korea. But the president is also not calling on China to make any significant moves to open its markets, preferring to put the spotlight on big-ticket deals for American companies.

China supplies much of North Korea’s energy; almost all of its crude oil flows in an 18-mile pipeline from the port city of Dandong, under the Yalu River, into the North Korean town of Sinuiju.

But some China experts said Mr. Trump failed to understand the limits of Chinese influence on the North. Although China fought alongside the North against the United States in the 1950-53 Korean War and remains its chief economic patron, the two countries are barely friends.

Some Chinese call the relationship a “fake alliance.” The two militaries have no working relationship. Early in his rule, Mr. Kim executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who had served as the primary conduit between the North and China’s senior leadership.

China’s influence on North Korea may have been further eroded by Mr. Xi’s decision last month to restore relations with South Korea, a move that deepened the North’s suspicions.

For more than a year, China had encouraged a boycott of South Korean goods and downgraded relations in protest over the deployment of an American-made missile defense system. But China relented last month, as the countries agreed to end the dispute even though South Korea is keeping the system.

Officials in Beijing and Washington point out that China has taken some measurable steps on North Korea. After the North’s accelerating nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, China approved tougher sanctions at the United Nations.

It has agreed to sever banking ties, end joint-venture companies with North Korea and limit the export of diesel fuel. China shut down North Korea’s coal imports earlier this year.

As Beijing has agreed to harsher penalties against North Korea, the cutting off of crude oil has become one of its last remaining, and most devastating, economic weapons.

Still, North Korea has some reserves, and it may also be able to find a new supplier in Russia. President Vladimir V. Putin has expressed doubt that sanctions will work, arguing that the regime has shown it can force its people “eat grass.” American officials say Russian smugglers began sending diesel and other fuels to the North in the spring.

Some experts doubt that China would go as far as cutting off oil shipments because of the potential to destabilize Pyongyang, sending refugees into China and perhaps leaving the Korean Peninsula under control of the South.

“I don’t see China being complicit in regime change, which is what totally cutting off North Korea’s energy will seriously risk,” said Bilahari Kausikan, an ambassador at large for Singapore.

“How can it, when in his 19th Party Congress speech, Xi stressed insistently China’s Leninist state identity?” he said. “And to do so, moreover, by being complicit with China’s main competitor, the United States.”

For China, North Korea remains a valuable buffer against the possibility of a united Korean Peninsula that would probably be capitalist, democratic and allied with the United States, said Evans J. R. Revere, a former State Department official who dealt with Northeast Asia.

“China’s newly invigorated Communist Party and its ambitious leader, Xi Jinping, see nothing positive in any of these outcomes,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s military threats against North Korea have caught Beijing’s attention, Mr. Revere said. But he added, “It is not clear that Beijing takes these threats any more seriously than does Pyongyang, which seems convinced that the United States is bluffing.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Xi sought to make up for his differences with Mr. Trump by showering him with hospitality. He welcomed him to the Forbidden City, where the leaders and their wives sipped tea, listened to Chinese opera and toured the Ming and Qing-era treasures in a shrine to China’s imperial past, which the hosts had cleared of tourists for their guests.

It was the third pomp-filled Asian stop, after Japan and South Korea, where the leaders competed to woo and flatter Mr. Trump with golf games, honor guards and fulsome references to his election victory and campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.”

There is a fundamental difference between those countries and China in terms of their relationship with the United States, said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former China adviser to Mr. Obama. “They need us in an existential way; the Chinese don’t need us in an existential way.”

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