North Korea is just one card that Washington and Beijing have at their disposal to defend their interests, writes Lionel Fatton of Webster University. At the beginning of 2019, the players are showing their cards.

Kim Jong Un went to China for the fourth time in less than a year. As was the case at the time of his first two visits, in March and May 2018, the primary goal was to obtain Xi Jinping’s support in order to strengthen his position ahead of a likely summit with Donald Trump. This visit with the North Korean leader was beneficial for China as well. It clearly demonstrated to the United States that if they wanted to make progress on nuclear negotiations, they would have to contend with Beijing. While an American delegation was in the Chinese capital to discuss trade tensions, Xi pulled out the North Korean card.

A little over a year ago, I wrote in these same pages that the North Korean headache is only a symptom of the rivalry between China and the United States, and that, as a consequence, it could only be resolved if the two superpowers were able to resolve their conflicts. North Korea is, then, just one card among others that Washington and Beijing have at their disposal to defend their interests. At the beginning of 2019, the players are showing their cards. The game is entering its critical phase.

China is Relatively Powerless

First, allow me to describe what is at stake: that is, the future position of both countries on the worldwide chess board with the United States’ determination to maintain its quasi-hegemony pitted against China’s dreams of revisionism. The trade war launched by Trump at the beginning of 2018 is at the center of this arm wrestling match. By imposing tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports, Washington is not only looking to slow China’s economic growth, but also to push the country to bend to rules that, in fields such as intellectual property, favor the United States. The United States is doing all of this in hopes of maintaining its dominance in the world economy and, therefore, the international system.

In the face of this American trade offensive, China is relatively powerless. The North Korean card remains its biggest advantage because it allows Xi to prevent Trump from achieving a crucial diplomatic victory ahead of the 2020 presidential election, which is his ultimate goal. Left alone to face the economic, military and political power that is the United States, North Korea would have no choice but to bend over backwards. Pyongyang needs China, and China uses this leverage to hinder U.S.-Korea negotiations and then barter its aid in exchange for concessions in trade.

For its part, the United States has two excellent cards for making China fold. There is the South China Sea, of which Beijing claims almost the entirety. Washington regularly sends warships to cross what China considers its territorial waters, thus discrediting its claims on the national and international scene. The most recent of these maritime operations took place on Monday, Jan. 7, on the first day of trade negotiations between American and Chinese officials in Beijing.

Taiwan in the Middle of the Arm Wrestling Match

The second card, Taiwan, is much more formidable. Beijing has considered the island to be a renegade province ever since Chinese nationalists found refuge there in 1949, and it wants to bring it back under its control. But because, to this day, Taiwan enjoys a security partnership with the United States – albeit an ambiguous one – and because its population has developed its own insular identity, a reunification is improbable in the short-term. Beijing thus strives to prevent Taipei from officially declaring independence, which would jeopardize its hopes of reaching its goals in the longer term.

The United States figured out a long time ago that Taiwan is China’s Achilles’ heel, but only Trump has played this card with so much pugnacity. In December 2016, he became the first elected president in nearly 40 years to have a direct conversation with a Taiwanese leader. A year later, he intensified military cooperation with the island. And in March 2018, he signed a law allowing for high level diplomatic visits. In so doing, Trump signaled to China that he could be inclined to support Taiwan’s hopes of independence.

In 2019, the American and Chinese cards will clash with a growing intensity against the backdrop of trade rivalries. It remains to be seen if the United States will take the risk of fully playing the Taiwanese card, in order to counteract the North Korean card in China’s hands. Should that be the case, a fourth major crisis in the Taiwan Strait, after those of 1954-1955, 1958, and 1995-1996, is at risk.

Lionel Fatton is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at Webster University in Geneva.