Trading cooperation on North Korea over South China Seas is a bad bargain for the United States as China has little incentive to cooperate
Exactly why the South China Sea has fallen off the administration’s agenda is not clear. But it is possible that U.S. officials have decided to lift the pressure on China’s maritime outposts because they believe that doing so could help secure Beijing’s help in managing North Korea. There are other signs that suggest that the administration may be trying to gain China’s favor. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Beijing in March, for example, the White House authorized him to describe the bilateral relationship in language favored by Chinese officials—a puzzling accommodation in light of the importance that Beijing attaches to such rhetoric. The next month, Trump called on South Korea to pay for a missile defense system whose deployment China has opposed. The Trump administration has also released no details about when it will announce arms sales to Taiwan, and Trump has indicated that he will seek Beijing’s permission before speaking to Taiwan’s president again. (Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December, in a break from longstanding U.S. policy that angered China.)
If this is the administration’s logic, it is deeply flawed. China is indeed capable of pressuring North Korea, since Beijing supports much of that country’s economy. But China has long prioritized the stability of the Korean Peninsula over its denuclearization, and those preferences will not change. More likely is that Beijing will pressure North Korea just enough to demonstrate that it is pitching in, avoiding the kinds of dramatic steps that would push Pyongyang toward denuclearization at the risk of the regime’s collapse. China will not ignore its interests in the Korean Peninsula simply because Washington gives up its own interests in the South China Sea.