The Challenges of Globalization
Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
Meeting Each Other Halfway on North Korea
Cooperation between China and the United States on addressing North Korea has been far from impressive in the past few years. Now, although President Trump has managed to build a good personal relationship with President Xi, and China’s effort on the issue is increasingly appreciated in Washington, D.C, there is no guarantee that current U.S.-China honeymoon will turn into better teamwork against Kim Jong-un. To overcome obstructions in U.S.-China cooperation and make a difference for the North Korea nuclear issue, the two countries should make some concessions on each other’s key concerns that were barely talked about in the past.
Secretary Tillerson made a meaningful attempt in August. His speech saying the United States would not seek a regime change in North Korea was praised by a Chinese official newspaper as “the bravest voice from Washington”; and Ambassador Cui Tiankai added in our conversation that he would hope to see the “Four No’s” statement reflected in U.S. policies. Beijing is serious about this, and it is important to convince Beijing that options for subverting North Korea will not be considered.
In our crisis simulation in D.C., the sensitive question concerning everyone most is whether China would intervene if the United States was about to attack North Korea, due to whatever reasons. Contrary to the agreed plan in our simulation of China only mobilizing troops along the border but standing aside, in reality, Beijing may respond to warlike actions from the U.S. alliance with a strong position, to stop Kim from losing control of North Korea.
In China’s likely judgment, any risky actions can lead to full-scale war on the peninsula, which Kim Jong-un would lose quickly on his own, even if he launched a nuclear revenge attack. North Korea would become anarchical after the regime’s sudden collapse. Given cases in the Middle East and Afghanistan, China would hardly believe that North Korea could be successfully stabilized and the government replaced by the South Koreans under American military management. China would see refugees flow towards its territory, tangled warfare between warlords or actions of guerrillas along the border, and potential ethnic problems for its own Korean minority.
No Chinese would like to see potential military confrontation against the United States, but it can be unavoidable in extreme situations. This dilemma is a fundamental apprehension of China. If this worry can be removed from the future cooperation by a bilateral understanding, Beijing will have much bigger confidence and less reservation in coordinating with the United States.
China has to do something to pay back. While criticizing the “strategic patience,” China did not answer the Obama administration’s worry about “the cycle of North Korean provocation, extortion, and accommodation, and reward.”
North Korea is still prudent in its relations with China—as evidenced by North Korea surprisingly sending congratulations to China’s 19th National Party Congress—and China should make use of it. When necessary, Beijing can activate its communication channel to tell Pyongyang a clear red line for further provocation, and to convince Kim if extreme situations like hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific happen, Beijing will have no choice but to adopt harsh policies in response to pressure from the international community, like calling back its ambassador. This conversation can be private, as long as Washington is informed.
And while China is unlikely to buy the suggestion of Professor Victor Cha of “letting China pay for North Korea’s compliance,” it is helpful for China to discuss with the United States sharing responsibilities over issues including aid projects or monitoring. The cost for North Korea to break a deal can be increased if China is involved as a stakeholder instead of a broker in the practical bargaining and trade.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue is also worth a talk between the two, even though the national anti-THAAD campaign in China is mostly cooled down. For these two superpowers, it is not rare to have interest conflicts in some specific regions. But the THAAD case already indicated that if geopolitical misunderstanding or competition occurs in North East Asia between China and the United States, the situation of the Korean Peninsula will only get more intense.
Thus, criticism of America deploying THAAD to strategically balance China, and the appeal from South Korea and Japan for stronger protection, should both be heard and respected. Washington can explain to Beijing that America’s protection over its allies is more stable and rational than South Korea’s and Japan’s own military development plan, including having nuclear weapons too. But on the other hand, the two countries should talk about what can be an acceptable range of U.S. military existence in different scenarios in advance.
Facing the continuously worsening situation of the Korea Peninsula, it is really the time for the United States and China to stop debating who should do more, and to honestly talk about major obstacles in the bilateral cooperation that were ignored before. Compromise is not easy (as I heard some Chinese professors questioning whether China is now following the U.S. policy “too much”). But if problems between China and the United States do not get solved first, no other issues on the peninsula can be easily ended in the foreseeable future.
Chenyu Wu is a junior at the University of International Relations in Beijing, majoring in international politics.
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