As tensions on the Korean Peninsula subside with North Korea’s withdrawal of Musudan missiles from its east coast launch site earlier this month, the United States and China will turn their attention to more pressing issues around the world. Yet the track record of the Kim family suggests tensions will flare up again when Kim Jong-un decides to demand the world’s attention with more provocations and escalatory rhetoric. When that time comes, the United States will likely again look to China for cooperation to reign in its petulant ally, but shouldn’t be surprised when China attempts to bargain its cooperation for U.S. concessions in return. The United States can decrease the value of North Korea as a Chinese bargaining chip by increasing dialogue with China on U.S. intensions in the region and by reclaiming its North Korea policy through reviving direct talks with the Kim regime. Reports of secret meetings in March between U.S. and North Korean officials are a positive step in this direction.
The U.S. government has been largely dissatisfied with China’s North Korea policy throughout the Obama administration, best exemplified by President Obama’s admonition of China’s “willful blindness” after Beijing refused to condemn the North’s deadly attacks against South Korea in 2010. However, U.S.-China cooperation appeared to improve significantly during this latest round of North Korean provocations, reaching a high point with China’s cooperation on drafting sanctions and later the Bank of China’s decision to cut ties with the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank after the United States enacted unilateral sanctions in mid-March. Many pundits and former officials, notably Christopher Hill, Kurt Campbell and Jon Huntsman, pointed to China’s support for tougher sanctions in response to the North’s third nuclear test in February as a turning point in Chinese policy and a sign of increased willingness to work with the United States on the North Korea issue. Yet few considered what China was asking for in return.
Beijing leverages its cooperation on North Korea as a bargaining chip in the overall U.S.-China relationship. China’s North Korea policy is encapsulated in the three no’s—no war, no instability and no nuclear weapons. China and North Korea’s mutual distrust and disdain does not change the fact that Beijing has convinced itself that the existence of a “pro-China” North Korean state is necessary to secure China’s interests in the region. Foremost among China’s interests is traditionally considered to be North Korea’s value as a strategic buffer against the U.S. military, but Peking University professor Jia Qingguo echoed the increasing debate when he said, “more and more people realize that North Korea is more like a security liability than a security asset to China.” China’s continued support for Pyongyang, despite the growing realization that North Korea no longer acts as a strategic buffer, suggests that North Korea’s value to China is changing to bargaining leverage in the U.S.-China relationship.
China is able to wield North Korea as leverage because the Obama administration has outsourced its North Korea policy to Beijing. The administration’s policy of “strategic patience” has failed to accomplish its intended goal—to stop North Korea’s provocations by conditioning U.S.-DPRK contact on an end to such hostilities—leaving the United States to court Beijing for solutions. Yet the U.S. “rebalancing” to Asia has increased Chinese suspicions of U.S. intensions in the region and thereby reduced Chinese goodwill to cooperate on resolving the North Korea issue, leaving Beijing seeking compensation for cooperation. Fudan University professor Shen Dingli, shortly after calling for China to “cut North Korea loose,” laid out a strategy for Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Beijing in April. Shen’s strategy reads like an instruction manual for bargaining with the Chinese leadership—“Kerry will likely urge China to rein in Pyongyang [but the United States] has to accord China’s interests more respect,” concluding that “Kerry should not seek cooperation without respecting China’s reasonable expectations.” Increased dialogue between the two capitals on the underlying motivations for the rebalancing will build mutual trust and reduce Chinese resistance to pressure North Korea, eliminating a driving factor in China’s use of North Korea as bargaining leverage.
The question is whether the United States is willing to “pay” for China’s cooperation, and if so, how much? The U.S. government is unlikely to engage in outright bargaining but appears to be creating its own bargaining leverage for Chinese action on North Korea. The United States’ recent military actions in response to the growing threat of the North’s missile and nuclear programs sought to raise the costs of supporting the DPRK for Beijing. Although the U.S. government denied any connection to China’s policy, this imposed cost was highlighted by an increased emphasis on missile defense, which directly affects China’s own security by degrading Beijing’s second-strike capability. During his visit to Japan, Secretary Kerry hinted at this tactic, although he later backtracked; “if the threat disappears, i.e. North Korea denuclearizes, the same imperative does not exist at that point in time for us to have to have that kind of robust, forward leaning posture of defence.”
However, China is likely no longer even interested in bargaining over North Korea. The recent release of the annual U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military capabilities for the first time explicitly stated that some cyberattacks on the United States were “attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.” In light of China’s bargaining strategy, the accusation is likely to end any Chinese willingness for significant further action on North Korea, including improved sanctions enforcement. This should be the final sign that Washington needs to reengage with North Korea directly, at an appropriate time, to get its DPRK policy back on track by reducing dependence on Beijing and removing China’s bargaining leverage.
Despite any tentative signs of increased Chinese pressure on North Korea, Beijing’s fundamental policy of support for the Kim regime will remain unchanged going forwards, as another round of provocations is unlikely to significantly alter Beijing’s strategic calculus. With no significant changes on the horizon, the United States has to decide how to approach the North Korea issue in the larger context of U.S.-China relations. A good place to start would be to stop looking to Xi Jinping and instead talk to Kim Jong-un.
Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga is a Research Assistant at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.