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US–China cooperation on North Korea remains critical

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before their meeting at at the Great Hall of the People on 19 March 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang).

In Brief

China is under pressure to deliver a solution to the increasingly dangerous North Korean crisis.


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Following North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), US President Donald Trump has called upon Beijing to put a ‘heavy move’ on Pyongyang to bring an end to the ‘nonsense’. He has tweeted previously that the United States and its allies will deal ‘properly’ with Pyongyang if China doesn’t.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is in lockstep with Washington, asserting at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that ‘China has the capacity and responsibility to bring North Korea to its senses’.

China claims its influence over North Korea is constrained. There is some truth to that. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are a shadow of what they once were. During the Cold War years, the connection between these two Communist allies was likened to that between ‘lips and teeth’.

Yet ties between the so-called middle and hermit kingdoms have drifted over the past quarter century, deteriorating sharply under the reign of the current North Korean leader, the young and reckless dictator Kim Jong-un.

Unlike his father Kim Jong-il, who was hosted by Beijing on at least seven occasions from 2000–11, the younger Kim has yet to visit China since taking power five years ago.

Highlighting the drift between Beijing and Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013. In so doing, he severed Beijing’s closest link to his regime.

More recently, Kim’s fingerprints were all over the audacious murder of Kim Jong-nam, who succumbed in February 2017 to a lethal dose of VX nerve agent administered at Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim’s half brother was on route to the Chinese territory of Macau, where he had lived for years under Beijing’s protection.

Much has been made in recent months of China’s willingness to freeze coal imports from North Korea. Yet China’s overall trade with the North continues to burgeon, growing by 37.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

What explains Beijing’s unwillingness to exert greater economic pressure against Pyongyang? At least three factors are at play.

First, the historical bonds between Beijing and Pyongyang run deep. While the pull of their shared history is more tenuous today, China suffered over a million casualties in the Korean War of 1950–53. The sentiments generated by such human sacrifice are not easily erased.

Second, Beijing is reluctant to tighten the economic noose around Pyongyang’s neck for fear of creating domestic disruption in North Korea. At approximately 1000 kilometres in length, China’s shared border with the North constitutes a crisis management nightmare. Back in April, Beijing deployed an additional 150,000 troops along it, ostensibly to conduct military drills but most likely in readiness for the flow of refugees that might materialise in the event of a full-scale or even limited Korean peninsula contingency.

Third, North Korea serves as a strategic buffer between China and the US’s key Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Should North Korea collapse, Beijing’s nightmare scenario is unification of the two Koreas and, with it, the presence of US forces on its doorstep.

Chinese insecurities thus explain Beijing’s unwillingness to press Pyongyang harder.

But this is not to suggest that China’s leaders are content with Pyongyang’s provocations. It is telling that a growing number of Chinese analysts, such as leading historian Shen Zhihua, are being given space to openly criticise Kim Jong-un’s practices. Beijing’s latest calls for calm also highlight just how unnerving China finds the prospect of Korean peninsula conflict.

China’s rise relies upon a stable strategic environment. Having recorded an economic growth rate of 6.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, Beijing will be loath to see devastating military conflict reverse these favourable trends.

Moreover, whatever influence China chooses to exert over Pyongyang will most likely occur in a much less direct manner than Trump and Turnbull would prefer.

Back in 1994, then US president Bill Clinton came within hours of conducting surgical military strikes against North Korea’s nuclear program. On that occasion, China played an important behind-the-scenes role in defusing the crisis and bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table. More than two decades on, we can expect a similarly subtle approach from Beijing.

Against that backdrop, the recent chill in US–China relations does not auger well. After a surprisingly promising start, the recent resumption of US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, coupled with Trump’s approval of his first arms sale to Taiwan, suggests that relations between Beijing and Washington are in for a rocky period.

But as the management of earlier crises reveals, stability on the Korean peninsula depends first and foremost on effective US–China cooperation. That, not dialled up Chinese economic pressure, is what key regional players like Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra should really be pushing for.

Brendan Taylor is Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

This article is part of the ‘Australia, Japan, and regional security’ project organised by the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU and the Policy Alternatives Research Institute at the University of Tokyo.

3 responses to “US–China cooperation on North Korea remains critical”

  1. If one follows this logic,will Trump have to bring the USA within hours of a military strike on the North before China will step in and more actively engage in efforts to pull Kim back from the brink? As the North now probably possesses nuclear weapons things are a lot more complicated and dangerous than they were back in 1994.

    As I noted a few weeks ago Trump lacks the patience, if not the mental capacity, to deal with complicated diplomatic negotiations. And Tillerson lacks experience with and knowledge of Korea as well as any experienced staff in the State Dept to help him.

    China has the advantage here and little reason to alter its behavior.

    • Its not about advantages it’s what will work.

      There’s little to a very low chance NK will willingly give up Nukes for anything US or even US AND China can offer. NK propaganda apparatus is such that any harsh sanctions levied by US will be translated to more US aggression and justifies NK nuke program. If harsh sanctions don’t work, what next? Drag things on for decades nurturing the next line of indignant, poor, nothing to lose NK leaders for our future generations? Or if it does trigger a NK collapse, where will all those nuclear armaments go when the hour of recooking comes?

      Even without Trump US still lacks the long term steady planning capability to safely defuse the situation. China’s long term steady peace plan will keep tensions down and things steady so NK can agree to curtail and eventually disarm nukes. Steady, peaceful, respectable long term engagement is the game here and its the safest way forward than anything else on the table. Meanwhile US is playing the spoiler with all the bomber flyovers that don’t really achieve anything than showing off its ego.

  2. Firstly, the statement that the “Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is in lockstep with Washington, asserting at last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that ‘China has the capacity and responsibility to bring North Korea to its senses’”, describes the PM’s either lack of or superficial understanding of the real situation in terms of China’s influence on NK, or his simply grandiose political standing to show to both his domestic audience and his US ally how ‘strong’ and ‘principled’ he is. It is likely to be political hypocrisy to the extreme but preformed very poorly.
    Secondly, the use of the phrase “the so-called middle and hermit kingdoms” in the paragraph, “Yet ties between the so-called middle and hermit kingdoms have drifted over the past quarter century, deteriorating sharply under the reign of the current North Korean leader, the young and reckless dictator Kim Jong-un”, is unfortunate and misleading. China is by no means a kingdom, far from it! The use reflects some sort of unwarranted stereotype of China in the west.
    Thirdly, in addition to the few reasons (I don’t necessarily share or agree with all of them, because there is no mention of any humanitarian concerns or motivations at all but only self-interests) that the author uses to explain why “Beijing’s unwillingness to exert greater economic pressure against Pyongyang “, is another one. That is, the US and Korea have frequently or regularly been conducting military exercises, of which some of them obviously very intimidating not only to the NK, but seriously affecting regional peace and stability.
    It is no use and no good to just only mention one side of the NK nuclear and missile issues while ignoring the other contributing side. Aren’t people saying that what occurred to the former Libyan leader Gaddafi and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein provided some examples that partially motivated NK’s leader for NK’s programs?
    Fourthly, “the recent chill in US–China relations does not auger well” in terms of successful resolving the issues, as the author puts it. In addition to those factors the author mentioned as contributing factors, it should not be to anyone’s surprise that it would not be easy to work with the current US president, whether it is for people from within the US or outside the US. He wants to do things his own way, let him do it. The ball is in his court and let’s see how best he can play with it.

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