Recent developments in North Korea both offer an opportunity for constructive cooperation between Beijing and Washington and underscore the need for such collaboration. It is imperative for statesmen in both capitals to seize that opportunity, not only to promote greater stability on the Korean Peninsula, but to repair their bilateral relations, which have become rather frayed.
Ironically, policy toward North Korea has been one of many reasons why those relations have grown tense in recent years. Washington has repeatedly sought to tighten already rigorous international economic sanctions against Pyongyang in response to the country’s growing missile and nuclear programs. China has balked at that course, arguing that it merely drives the North Korean regime into even more surly isolation. Even when Beijing has reluctantly gone along with new sanctions, it has done so only after succeeding in diluting such measures. That pattern, in turn, has annoyed policy-makers in Washington.
But the chill in U.S.-China relations goes far beyond disagreements about how to handle Pyongyang. Spats on trade and other economic issues have grown more numerous and acute. Policy differences on various security issues, including policy toward both Iran and Syria, have produced a shocking outpouring of vitriol—especially from the U.S. side. Following vetoes by both Moscow and Beijing of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice condemned the vetoes as “shameful” and “unforgivable.” Later that month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used equally inflammatory language, terming the Russian and Chinese actions as “just despicable.” The tone of the discourse has not improved much since then.
There are other sources of tensions and suspicions between Washington and Beijing. Chinese officials view the much-discussed U.S. “strategic pivot” to East Asia with wariness. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that the move is not directed against China, that doctrinal shift, combined with Washington’s efforts to strengthen military ties to traditional allies and court new security partners, such as India and Vietnam, feed Chinese suspicions that such assurances are insincere.
Washington’s recent moves regarding the dispute between China and several Southeast Asian neighbors over islands in the South China Sea and between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea exacerbate those tensions. Beijing believes that the United States is backing competing claimants against China and may be even prodding them to take more assertive positions. In a December article, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, excoriated U.S. policy on the East China Sea dispute. The article claimed that “the U.S. is the controlling hand behind the scenes on the Diaoyu Islands issue.” It further charged that Washington wants to “use the Diaoyu Islands to distract and interfere with China’s strategic focus in order to deter China’s rise.”
A similar undercurrent of suspicion and hostility regarding China is also growing in the United States. Allegations of unfair trade practices, including the valuation of China’s currency and Beijing’s treatment of intellectual property rights, are on the rise. So, too, are warnings about China’s rapidly increasing defense spending and Beijing’s development of more robust military capabilities.
Given that troubling context, it is important for both governments to seek more areas where cooperation is possible. North Korea may be one of those arenas—especially if Washington can avoid a knee-jerk reaction to Pyongyang’s December missile test. Aside from that episode, there are intriguing hints that Kim Jong Un may want to chart a different course for his country than the insular strategy that his grandfather and father embraced. Kim’s New Year’s address called for a “radical turn” in North Korea’s policies, and proposed to unleash an “industrial revolution” that would seek to improve the standard of living for the North Korean people. To put it mildly, concern about the living standards of the people was never a priority for previous governments.
There are also subtle signs of receptivity to greater openness, both at home and abroad. Private markets are again cropping up in the country after the political blight that caused such green shoots to wilt a few years ago. Pyongyang has told Canberra that it wishes to re-open its embassy in Australia, which Kim Jong Il’s regime abruptly closed in early 2008. North Korean officials show far greater interest in China’s successful economic reforms then they have ever exhibited before.
Washington should focus on those encouraging signs and not obsess about the missile launch. The Obama administration also should not press China to endorse hard-line policies in response to the missile episode. A Reuters story reports that the two governments have apparently agreed to a tentative deal on a UN resolution that would condemn the launch, slightly tighten existing sanctions, but not impose any new ones. That is a relatively mild approach to dealing with North Korea’s missile program, and one hopes that it heralds Washington’s acceptance of a more conciliatory diplomatic strategy regarding the entire range of issues.
The next step should be to determine whether the signs of greater openness coming out of Pyongyang are real, and whether North Korea finally wishes to join the international community instead of being a disruptive force. That is where cooperation between Washington and Beijing becomes imperative. Given the toxic history between the United States and North Korea, China is an essential facilitator if those two countries are to develop a reasonably normal relationship. Although U.S. policy experts and political leaders have a tendency of overestimate Beijing’s clout in Pyongyang, China is—by far—North Korea’s closest ally, and since it provides a large percentage of the country’s food and energy supplies, its influence is considerable.
If Beijing can help promote the development of decent ties between Washington and Pyongyang, it would be a major win for peace and stability throughout East Asia. And success in a collaborative effort to bring North Korea out of its self-imposed isolation, might foster greater bilateral cooperation on other issues. At a minimum, it is an opportunity that needs to be pursued.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and policy studies on international affairs.