Dissatisfied with China's half-hearted pressure on North Korea, the Trump administration is rolling out some economic guns. It reportedly is preparing sanctions against an array of small Chinese banks that provide support for North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
This would be an excellent step toward curbing Pyongyang's increasingly aggressive and menacing behavior. More, however, will have to be done, for North Korea's ballistic missile program is advancing rapidly.
Its most recent test suggests the regime of Kim Jong Un now has the capacity to strike Alaska or Hawaii. This reveals the urgency of the situation. American cities are under threat of nuclear annihilation from the most paranoid and unpredictable regime in the world.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has so far been long on talk and relatively short on action.
What we have learned from the president's efforts is that China has no intention of putting the hammer down on North Korea. That's a big problem, because Beijing is crucial to changing North Korean behavior. Without Chinese trade and Chinese economic ties, Kim Jong Un's impoverished kingdom would have nothing.
Correspondingly, Washington must do whatever it takes to alter China's attitude towards North Korea. It must come to believe that Pyongyang's missile program is as much its problem as it is America's. To do that, Trump will have to increase pressure on China in several fields: economic, military, and political.
Trump could threaten tough sanctions against bigger and more important Chinese businesses, such as investment banks, if China does not put a stranglehold on the North Korean economy. There is always a risk that the Chinese will choose to retaliate instead of complying. But given the dire situation, this is a risk the Trump must take. It is, at least, a much smaller risk than war with North Korea.
On the military front, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have noted, the U.S. should increase the deployment of U.S. forces close to North Korea and China. We should also increase the tempo of American freedom of navigation transits close to disputed islands in the area, over which China claim sovereignty. This will upset the Beijing, but that's the point. We should also speak to President Xi in terms he understands amounting, in short, to "take helpful action on North Korea, or we will mess with you." Meanwhile, if it ever comes to military action, the U.S. will have the firepower in place to destroy North Korea's ballistic missile program.
Politically, the U.S. can put pressure on our closest allies, Britain and Australia, to withdraw or reduce their support for the Chinese-run Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB). The bank is a thinly-veiled Chinese bribery scheme. Rewarding foreign nations that close an eye to Chinese foreign policy, China uses the AIIB to throw billions of dollars in investments at erstwhile American allies. Until now, Washington, including the Obama administration, has tolerated the engagement of our allies with the AIIB. But if China remains unhelpful in curbing Kim, we will need to take a tougher approach.
These options would shake the international consensus. Most would be unthinkable in normal circumstances. But the threat of North Korean nuclear missiles hitting the westernmost states is simply intolerable.
President Trump seems to understand that although war must be avoided, the consensus on North Korea is broken. He needs to move the policy needle — and point it toward Pyongyang.