While most Western diplomatic attention is currently focused on the aftermath of the US missile strike on Syria, a potentially greater drama is taking place thousands of miles away in the East China Sea. An American battle group, headed by the carrier USS Carl Vinson, has arrived off the Korean peninsula in a show of strength intended to warn Kim Jong-un of the consequences of his continued sabre-rattling.
Donald Trump has said that Syria is less of an issue for the United States than North Korea, which poses a direct threat to American allies in the region and even to the US west coast. In view of what happened in Syria, the world needs to be prepared for the unexpected here, too. President Trump has hardly hidden his intent. Using his favourite vehicle for issuing executive statements – Twitter – he stated: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them.”
In a second message, he appeared to link a trade rapprochement with China to Beijing’s help to contain Pyongyang. Since Chinese president Xi Jinping was in America for talks with Mr Trump last week it must be assumed that they discussed tactics for dealing with North Korea. The Americans have a clear national security interest in stopping its nuclear weapons programme and China has a clear regional interest in averting the chaos that would be caused by a war on the peninsula.
A common approach appears to be developing: talks earlier this week between Chinese and South Korean ministers agreed “strong additional measures” if Pyongyang conducts further nuclear or missile tests. China has already imposed economic sanctions including a ban of all imports of North Korean coal and is clearly the key to dealing with Kim.
But Pyongyang’s very irrationality makes it essential that America does not act unilaterally. President Xi was sufficiently concerned to telephone the White House and assure Mr Trump that China was “committed to the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula” but also to resolving problems through peaceful means. A flashpoint could come as soon Saturday, birthday of the state’s founder Kim Il-sung, or later this month when the ruling party celebrates its 85th anniversary. If the regime fires a missile to mark one of these occasions, China and America must respond in concert.