Cross Purposes: Beijing, Washington and the Korean Peninsula

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) greets visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing, 14 February. REUTERS/Diego Azubel/Pool

by Daniel Pinkston (@dpinkston) and Yanmei Xie (@YanmeiXie)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent East Asia tour raised the prospect that the Six-Party Talks – in the deep freeze for over five years – could soon reconvene. After conversing with Chinese officials, Kerry spoke positively of their promise to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. Kerry announced in Beijing that “China could not have more forcefully reiterated its commitment” to the goal of denuclearising North Korea. In the background was hope that an inter-Korean thaw might be underway, with the two Koreas agreeing to hold the first reunion of separated family members in over three years.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s own statement, while forceful, was far less specific. “China will never allow chaos or war on the Korean Peninsula”. Kerry had said the two sides agreed that the North “must take meaningful, concrete, and irreversible steps towards verifiable denuclearisation, and it needs to begin now”. Wang stressed that the “top priority at the moment is to grasp the opportunity and resume talks”.

Clearly the U.S. and China have a mismatch in priorities. Even though both posit denuclearisation as a goal, Beijing and Washington have contradicting prescriptions. The U.S. employs diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, containment, and deterrence to pressure Pyongyang to denuclearise. Many in Washington believe Beijing holds the real key given the North’s economic dependence on China.  But China is reluctant to take any coercive action that might destabilise the Kim regime and possibly change a delicate geopolitical balance. So China utilises diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation as instruments with which to encourage the North Korean leadership to denuclearise, but it is willing to live with a de facto nuclear North Korea in exchange for stability in the present. Kerry himself acknowledged this when he said the Chinese “will not allow a nuclear program” in the North and added: “over the long run”.

Certainly a public consensus is emerging in China that believes Beijing’s unconditional support has led to some excessive North Korean behaviour contrary to China’s interests. Xi Jinping’s administration is trying to re-set boundaries. China almost certainly would deliver a harsh reprimand if North Korea were to conduct another nuclear or missile test, or start a military skirmish with the South, for example. But the red lines that would trigger serious punishment – and what the punishment would be – remain unclear.

Both the U.S. and China wish to avoid a war on the peninsula and therefore share an interest in managing Pyongyang’s behaviour. However – and here’s the fundamental difference in viewpoints – the risks and costs associated with managing Pyongyang are qualitatively different from those associated with the actions that might be required for denuclearisation. Pyongyang’s “normal” intransigence can be countered with short-term, easily reversible steps such as temporarily slowing down economic cooperation or tightening border inspections. Making Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons almost certainly would require more drastic actions, some of which could threaten Beijing’s bottom lines of no instability, no sudden regime change, no unified U.S. ally on China’s border. Managing Pyongyang’s behaviour helps maintain the status quo; denuclearising North Korea risks changing the status quo.

Setting the table to resume the Six-Party Talks appears to be good enough for China. The framework allows Beijing to play its preferred role of mediator, garnering good-will for its efforts while ensuring minimum costs to its relations with the parties involved (the U.S., both Koreas, Japan and Russia). The Chinese consensus is that the North Korean nuclear issue is ultimately a “U.S.-DPRK” problem that can be solved if the two parties would only sit down and hammer out an agreement, so Beijing may well feel it has done its part if it can get the parties to reconvene talks. Having the parties at the table also gives Beijing a structure for monitoring and managing tensions.

The barriers to talks therefore remain significant. Washington wants Pyongyang to take verifiable and irreversible steps towards dismantling its nuclear program, including implementing its previous denuclearisation commitment. China, however, wants the U.S. to lower its threshold for talks, or in Wang Yi’s words, “show flexibility”.

U.S. policymakers very likely see the limits of cooperating with Beijing, but at this stage choose to paper over differences in public. Lauding China’s commitment to denuclearise the North, Kerry also could be aiming to bind Beijing to a position it might find difficult to abandon. But Beijing has its own ideas. China’s stated goal actually is “the denuclearisation of the peninsula”, a nod to Pyongyang’s assertion that Washington’s nuclear umbrella must be retracted from Seoul.

In short, there is little sign of Beijing moving towards Washington’s pressure-driven approach in the absence of Pyongyang crossing China’s red lines. Evidence suggests quite the opposite. On the heels of Kerry’s visit to Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin travelled to Pyongyang where he reiterated China’s desire to foster the “healthy and stable development of bilateral relations”, including by “respecting each other’s interests and expanding pragmatic cooperation”.  China may be willing to apply pressure on North Korea to return to the Six-Party Talks. But when the table is set, Beijing will likely congratulate itself for fulfilling its responsibilities, and the ball will then be in Washington’s court as to whether talks alone are sufficient.

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