Taming the Fire: US and China Juggle North Korea

Dário Moreira assesses the shared and differing interests of the US and China with regard to North Korea.

If I were to state that the solution to the North Korean issue lies in a ‘peaceful resolution through dialogue’, I could be quoting either American or Chinese officials. China and the US have both expressed their concerns with regards to the DPRK’s continuous missile testing. However, both countries are yet to join forces to handle a situation in which they hold shared interests. What should we make of the seemingly identical political discourse that the US and China are adopting on the North Korean issue?

Before exploring this question, it is worth elucidating why the ‘shared interests’ claim is a credible statement in the first place.

Firstly, both are advocating for a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, albeit with strongly diverging positions as to the price that this should come at. Secondly, both the Americans and the Chinese want to avoid regime change at all costs. For China, this stems from the fear of an uncontrollable eventuality in its own backyard: a refugee crisis and the loss of a longstanding ally constitute what China perceives to be a high risk situation.

Similarly, the US holds an interest in preserving the status quo in the region, as was referenced explicitly in a recent press conference held by US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The consequences of regime change are highly unpredictable and one cannot know what impact it could have on American interests, especially with regards to South Korea.

Furthermore, underpinning the “common interest” assumption is the fact that both countries have endorsed new UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. Despite a few unilateral American sanctions on  Chinese companies who have allegedly failed to comply with the restrictions delineated by the UNSC, both countries are using the UN body as a diplomatic means to tackle the current crisis – the unanimous approval of resolution 2371 on August 5th is indicative of this.

The extent to which both powers have shared interests in the Korean Peninsula provides an important context for a consideration when assessing proposals put forth by both the Chinese and the American administrations.

Two Goliaths with different visions for David

China’s view is that the starting point for a peaceful resolution is the establishment of a de facto peace treaty on the peninsula, which is currently still operating under an armistice dating back to 1953. China has made it clear that it sees the US as the country most capable of resolving the crisis. Chinese media sources have mirrored their American counterparts in implying that the power to resolve the situation lies in American hands. An opinion article in China Daily, the English language daily newspaper published in China, argued that the US should “throw its weight behind inter-Korean talks.”

Ironically, China’s view that Korea is a US issue did not impede the country from issuing a joint conflict resolution document with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs advocating for a dual track solution. The document released on July 4th of this year – coincidence or irony one might wonder – proposes that North Korea denuclearize in exchange for the suspension of US-South Korea joint military exercises.

The US has vehemently rejected this dual track solution. Rather, it has demanded that North Korea cease its nuclear testing program. Tillerson went so far as to state that the US will reject any negotiation premised on the notion that “[North Korea] will maintain their nuclear weapons.”

In a parallel development, the US has engaged in a tit-for-tat with China over who ought to bear responsibility for the resolution of the crisis. In direct contrast to China’s position, the US has asked China to put more pressure on the DPRK under the pretext that China has not done enough. This point of view can partly be attributed to an American misconception that China somehow holds the means to dictate terms to the North Korean leadership. The heavy criticism of China by North Korean media, however, is illustrative of North Korea’s independent agenda.

North Korea: a token for China, America or both?

Thus, we come back to the original question: Why, in the face of common interests, do China and the US diverge on the North Korean issue? I see at least two possible answers.

The North Korean issue is not only about North Korea. This may be the first time that an American administration needs to rely on another big power to solve a diplomatic crisis in the Pacific and, as such, sets a precedent of unparalleled political significance. The outcome of this crisis might offer us a glimpse into what diplomatic negotiations in a new bipolar global political system will look like.

Sensing a tipping point in the global balance of power, America’s main goal in the resolution of this conflict might be to preserve its role as the determinant and determining stakeholder. Leniency on this issue will be detrimental to America’s image as the world leader. An uncompromising standpoint, however, can be equally damaging, since stubbornly pursuing  unilateralism will serve to strengthen the perception that the US is an unyielding, hegemonic power.

In this regard, China and Russia have played their cards perfectly. The joint communique advocating for a dual track solution was an interesting diplomatic move. China and Russia worked swiftly to present the only concrete proposition so far. By proposing terms apparently unacceptable to the US administration, the proposal puts American diplomacy on the back foot when it comes to the political narrative. This is the most complex contest being waged in terms of the North Korean issue.

Excluding the diplomatic sound bites issued by state department officials, one cannot discern any willingness by the White House to compromise on North Korea. My intention is not to question this stance, but to analyze its political implications for public opinion. America’s position plays into China’s and Russia’s hands with regards to their accusations of the US being an intransigent hegemon.

As a result, the US finds itself in a political dilemma. It can compromise, at the cost of setting a more lenient precedent which may further shift the political initiative to China in future crises. Or, it can take a stand, at the potential risk of further denigrating its international image.

My prediction is that situations involving shared leverage by the US and China are bound to arise again, be it over the South China Sea, the Taiwan issue, the 50-year limit of the ‘political autonomy’ clause in Hong Kong and Macau or even over events similar to the recent Sino-Indian border incident (although the latter is dependent on the level of India’s alignment with the US).

As it stands, the US needs to negotiate with another big power with equally high stakes in the conflict. What we have seen so far is that the US is yet to adapt to this new reality, and can be perceived as pursuing a unilateral approach with the DPRK, using China mainly as a scapegoat for justifying its inability to solve the crisis.

Another (more cynical) line of reasoning that may explain the lack of cooperation despite aligned interests is that a perpetuation of the crisis is in fact beneficial for both countries.

One could hypothesize that China may be prolonging the crisis because it forces the US to adopt a softer position on other issues. In other words, North Korea can be used as leverage in issues ranging from the South China Sea to future US arms sales to Taiwan, or other situations in which the two powers might clash.

Similarly, one cannot dismiss the possibility that the US is avoiding a resolution of the crisis because it reinforces the pretext for the ongoing US military presence in South Korea. This is not to say that the US wants North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Rather, it is in the best interests of the US not to extinguish the fire, but merely to have it tamed. North Korea plays a crucial role in that it serves as a politically viable justification of a large US military presence in China’s backyard.

To quote a fellow American I met in the streets of Hangzhou, what would China be willing to do to preserve a military base in Mexico, Canada or Alaska? Stationing troops in South Korea is of immense geopolitical importance for the US. Any trouble stirred up by North Korea works both ways. Albeit concerning for American officials, it will only further legitimize the American military presence. Expect the US to anticipate, and at times perhaps even incite, a whole lot of trouble. Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks only corroborate this interpretation.

A third hypothesis, raised by Henry Kissinger in an article in 2009, points to how the US stance regarding North Korean nuclear proliferation can have broader implications for other negotiations, for instance with Iran.

The interests surrounding the North Korean situation are bigger than the DPRK in scope. From political precedent and diplomatic leverage, to geopolitical interests, there are many reasons why an issue, in which the world’s two biggest superpowers allege to want the same outcome, is yet to be resolved.

Finally, one cannot neglect the role of the North Korean government. For, as interesting as great power politics is, the DPRK remains a totalitarian dictatorship with its own objectives and political agenda, signaling the most obvious answer as to why a deal has failed to materialize. The promise of a solution does not, at its core, depend on the US–China dynamic, but in multilateral efforts to promote inter-Korean dialogue. Meanwhile, the fire keeps burning.

Dário Moreira is an undergraduate student in International Studies at Leiden University.

Photo by (stephan)