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April 18, 2017

Responding To: U.S.-China: Addressing and Building Strategic Trust

The North Korean Crisis and U.S.-China Relations: Building Enduring Strategic Trust

Clay Garner

Since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1979, the United States and China have become inseparable partners in global trade, investment, diplomacy, technological advancement, and education. Yet, despite the multitude of shared bilateral interests and values, both sides struggle to trust and understand the long-term intentions of the other.  Recently, China’s increasing assertiveness in regional affairs, particularly the South China Sea territorial disputes, has concerned American policymakers; how will China, an aspiring regional hegemon, engage with international law and a significant American presence in Asia? Similarly, China is troubled by what it considers a policy of American “encirclement,” a belief that the United States is trying to contain China’s rise through strategic deterrence partnerships across Central, South, and East Asia.  Given this context, there is one daunting crisis that best illustrates the challenges and opportunities for U.S.-China strategic trust building: North Korea.

At present, the greatest threat to Asia-Pacific regional stability is North Korea.  The Kim regime’s menacing rhetoric and unwillingness to abide by international law in its pursuit of advanced missile capabilities is deeply alarming. Further complicating the Korean Peninsula issue are relevant regional interests held by the United States and China.  On the American side, these interests include protecting thousands of deployed military forces and ensuring the sanctity of mutual defense treaties with allies Japan and South Korea. China, however, is North Korea’s largest trading partner and views the isolated state in somewhat friendly terms. Unlike the United States, China shares a narrow river border with North Korea and would experience an unimaginable refugee crisis in the event of conflict or collapse of the North Korean regime.  Both the United States and China have interests in a denuclearized and de-escalated North Korea, though China undoubtedly has more to lose given its geographic proximity and economic ties to North Korea.  Why then, is there such a lack of trust in resolving the crisis?

In early 2017, the Chinese leadership condemned America’s increasingly militaristic approach to resolving the Korean Peninsula crisis, specifically the deployment of THAAD launchers (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) to golf courses near the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea.  China’s primary concern centers on THAAD’s far-reaching radar capabilities, which the United States could use to conduct surveillance on nearby Chinese territory.  Adding to this bilateral tension, the United States has decried China’s unwillingness to rein in North Korea by largely disregarding U.N.-imposed economic sanctions; in a blatant example of negligence, the Chinese company ZTE was recently found guilty of carrying out more than 200 shipments of sanctions-controlled telecommunications equipment to North Korea.  Under the Trump administration, the United States has grown more impatient with North Korea’s threats to the American homeland.  On the other hand, China has remained cautiously reserved in its dealings with North Korea and skeptical of American intentions on the peninsula.Given the substantial discrepancies between the American and Chinese approaches to addressing the North Korean issue, it is no surprise that there is a deficit of bilateral trust. 

With the shared goal of regional stability and denuclearization, how can the United States and China cooperate on the North Korean crisis while building enduring strategic trust? The two nations should, with the involvement of key regional stakeholders such as Russia, South Korea, and Japan, formalize a recurring strategic dialogue on potential approaches and outcomes to the North Korean crisis. In order to build long-term trust, the two sides can find shared goals by first discussing their respective ideal outcomes; what is an optimal peaceful resolution of the North Korean crisis for China and the United States?  What joint measures can the United States and China take to reduce tensions over the crisis? Furthermore, as the key neighborhood power with economic leverage over North Korea, China needs to step up and play a more active role in de-escalating the crisis by forcing North Korea to give up nuclear weapons ambitions; if China can prove to its neighbors that it truly does seek peace, stability, and prosperity in the region, then long-term strategic trust might be possible.

For the United States and China to establish long-term mutual trust and peace-building measures on the North Korean crisis, leaders from both nations must fight the zero-sum conflict mentality of bilateral relations. Conversation on the relationship must be fundamentally reframed to focus on mutually beneficial opportunities and how to reach positive outcomes.  Looking to the future, the North Korean crisis will continue to test the limits of U.S.-China relations; if leaders on both sides seek opportunities to enhance long-term strategic trust, then perhaps we can avoid unprecedented nuclear confrontation. 

Clay Garner is a senior at Stanford University majoring in East Asian Studies with a focus on media and politics.

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