Conventional wisdom is that China possesses all the cards to bring the North Korean regime to its knees to US satisfaction. Therefore, it follows and the Donald Trump administration fully believes, that if sufficient pressure is put on the Chinese government or a huge trade concession is offered, Beijing would do the needful, by diplomacy if possible or by threat of use of force if necessary. To add spice to the menu, the US has decided to indulge in sabre-rattling by re-routing a naval task force towards the Korean waters in a show of force. The farcical nature of the threat was exposed when the naval task force, instead of heading towards the Korean waters, actually moved towards Australia, having been “misinformed" about the White House orders. US vice-president Mike Pence did his bit of sabre-rattling by visiting the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) and making provocative statements. Pence, of course, ended up offending his hosts, the South Korean government, over trade issues. But that is another matter.

Over the years, the Chinese government has tried desperately to head off a conflict situation from arising on the Korean peninsula. China has worked very hard to bring the two parties together, sometimes succeeding, and often enough, the talks and understanding reached between North Korea and the US have broken down, not entirely due to North Korean belligerence. The US too has to share a fair amount of the blame. In 1994, president Bill Clinton and the North Korean rulers reached a deal under an “agreed framework" under which the latter was to freeze its nascent nuclear programme in return for diplomatic and economic concessions. The high point was in 2000, when Clinton received a North Korean envoy and directed secretary of state Madeleine Albright to visit Pyongyang. President George W. Bush’s cabinet, full of neoconservatives, would have none of this and labelled North Korea as part of the infamous “axis of evil". Bush even reneged on the understanding that Clinton had reached that the two countries had “no hostile intent" against each other and moved away from the “agreed framework" of 1994.

Chinese diplomacy, once again, worked tirelessly to bring the two belligerents together again and initiated the six-party talks involving Japan and Russia along with China, the US and the Korean nations. By September 2005, both North Korea and the US had agreed to “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations". But, as before, the US treasury department had other ideas. They designated Macau’s Banco Delta Asia as a “money launderer", presumably knowing that the North Koreans used this bank to finance their trade. Once again, the North Koreans suspected that they were being unfairly targeted and, as a protest, withdrew from the six-party talks. It was then that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il decided, in October 2006, that the safety of his regime from US threats and Chinese blandishments could only be ensured if the North went in for nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-il had the example of Saddam Hussein before him. The lesson drawn from the overthrow of Hussein was that if he had nuclear weapons, the US would not have touched him.

At present, the Chinese dilemma is acute. On the one hand, they prize their relationship with the US and, above all, the prospect of dealing with the rest of Asia as a co-equal partner of the US. This is the intent and main thrust of the Chinese proposal of a “new great power relationship" that President Xi Jinping talks about so incessantly. Now that Trump has openly stated that China cannot be considered a “currency manipulator", this is music to their ears, an advantage the Chinese would be loath to forgo. The Chinese, in a show of “great" power cooperation, even abandoned their long-held position on Syria and abstained on a Western-sponsored resolution. But on the other hand, the Chinese know that their political influence on the North Korean leadership is fairly limited and overrated. President Xi has still not met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since he took over in 2012. The North Korean leadership has eliminated physically almost all the known pro-Chinese officials, including Jang Song-thaek, an uncle of the present ruler. The memory that Korea was once a vassal state of the Chinese empire is never far away. Trump’s foolish remark that Korea was once under the Chinese, only helped arouse nationalistic feelings, not only in the North, but in the South as well. The Chinese empire “lost" Korea to the Japanese in 1910 and it remained a part of the Japanese empire till the end of World War II, when Soviet troops liberated Korea and Kim Il-sung arrived from the Soviet Union to set up the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1945. On a visit to the Korean War Memorial, the distinct impression is conveyed that it was only Korean troops that fought the Americans; the Chinese are given a distinctly subsidiary role. In North Korea today, all vestiges of Chinese cultural influence, including the use of Chinese pinyin characters, have been removed. This is not the case in the South, where often some historic buildings still retain Chinese pinyin characters. Korean nationalism is a potent force in North Korea and it is encouraged socially, politically and even in the economic sphere. The Chinese know it and are loath to take it head on.

The North Koreans are a tough hardy people, not easily subdued, and can be very stubborn. Their living standards are poor, but not at starvation levels. North Korean society is highly militarized and can be mobilized in a matter of days rather than weeks.

If the US or the Chinese attempt a military response, the outcome may not turn out to be very pleasant for both. The North Koreans will not hesitate to retaliate and that is the main Chinese worry. After all, there are several thousands of Koreans who live in China, are Chinese citizens and can be expected to oppose any form of coercion. The Chinese also know, given past history, that they cannot fill any political vacuum in North Korea and certainly cannot countenance the presence of any US or Allied troops, north of the DMZ. At the end of the day, the Chinese will work extremely hard for the revival of six-party talks. But given history and the fact that the Trump administration is filled with military men in key decision-making positions, can any compromise ever be worked out? At the end of the day, the Chinese just may not be able to deliver the destruction of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme, as the Americans so earnestly wish.

Ranjit Singh Kalha is India’s former ambassador to Iran and Indonesia and a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs.