Mr. Wang Yi, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited the United States from Feb 23 to 25, primarily with two purposes. The first is to prepare the agenda for the summit meeting between the two countries’ leaders, and the second is to continue high-level exchanges on bilateral ties and regional hotspots to prevent and manage crises and enhance cooperation.
In addition, when the Nuclear Security Summit in late March is held, the Chinese leadership will attend this important event and presumably meet with President Obama on the margins of the summit. Nuclear security features prominently among the new policy initiatives pursued by the Obama administration, and the 2016 Summit, as a fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, is set to be an important component of President Obama’s political legacy.
In the past seven years, China and the US have been actively engaged in nuclear security and non-proliferation affairs, and worked jointly to improve and upgrade international cooperation regimes. One example in point is the establishment of the Nuclear Safety Demonstration Centre under China’s auspices, with the aim to provide advanced public goods to promote peaceful use of nuclear energy both in China and abroad. The centre initiative was driven by input from both countries, and is on track to become a flagship project for China-US cooperation in the nuclear arena. It merits mentioning that both the current and previous Chinese leaderships have attended the Nuclear Security Summit, which is a promising sign for building a new type of major-country relations.
The international community is reasonably concerned about how the China-US relations would affect security in Northeast Asia, in particular in the context of recent developments in the Korean peninsula, with the nuclear test by the DPRK and the possible deployment of the THAAD in the ROK. In addition, China and US must continue to engage closely on ensuring national security of China and safeguard freedom of passage on international waters in Southeast Asia. On these two accounts, the two countries have made some headway.
The DPRK has been conducting nuclear tests and missile tests in the past decade, and satellite launching based on ballistic missile tests, which is prompting stringent rebukes and sanctions by the international community. But rather than deterred, the DPRK was bent on pursuing nuclear ambitions in disregard of the sanctions by the UN Security Council and went on with nuclear testing.
While escalating the sanctions, the international community needs to ensure it makes the DPRK government feels the pinch, but without unsettling stability in the region and avoid disproportionate impact on the average people — constituting three dimensions of the policy goal. What China and the US differ on is not about strengthening the sanctions, but which kinds of sanctions are due without undermining regional stability or China’s own security. This largely explained the weeks of consultations and discussions at the UN Security Council on sanctions against the DPRK.
China is deeply unsettled by the attempt to deploy the THAAD system in the ROK under the pretext of installing a defense safeguard against the DPRK, and it strains relations between China and both the US and the ROK. Understandably, the ROK may want to develop or introduce some degree of anti-missile capabilities to defend itself as a sovereign nation, but to what degree? That is to be gauged and pondered anew. The THAAD is equipped with an X-band radar that could penetrate 2,000 miles, considering the breadth and length of the DPRK, the possible deployment of the THAAD would jeopardize China’s strategic security, which is beyond argument. Hence, China’s stern opposition to its deployment is based on solid ground.
The fact that the defiance of the DPRK drives a wedge between China & US and China & ROK lays bare the vulnerabilities of these bilateral relations. To overcome this challenge, the three countries must rise above a flurry of diplomatic rhetoric and engage in high-level dialogue for pragmatic outcomes. During his visit to the US, Minister Wang Yi put forth a strategy whereas it hardens the “stick” and sweetens the “carrot” of the deal to up the ante for continued defiance, and entice the DPRK back to the negotiating table. For the “stick”, the newly adopted UN Security Council resolution demands aviation fuel embargo against the DPRK, which may well serve to ground the entire fleet in the DPRK. For the “carrot”, the goal is to promote denuclearization in tandem with transition from armistice to peace on the Korean Peninsula and realize enduring peace and security on the Peninsula.
The high-level dialogue between China and the US led to speedy progress and final consensus on the UN resolution after weeks of prolonged negotiations. Minister Wang Yi reiterated that the new resolution would effectively deter the nuclear programs in the DPRK, which bodes well for China-US and China-ROK cooperation in this regard. The international community is closely watching if the resolution can be effectively implemented. But the high-level interaction between China and the US, in and of itself, helps both sides to understand each other’s stance better, and ultimately has led to an outcome acceptable to both sides. China agrees to toughen sanctions because it is determined to realize denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and ensure the security of China. The US understands China’s concerns thanks to the dialogue and subscribes to the parallel track of solutions seeking denuclearization and replacement of armistice with peace agreements, which opens the door to negotiations of a peace agreement with the US when the DPRK is committed to abandoning nuclear programs.
An important prerequisite for effective high-level communication between China and US is that the US dismissed the much-hyped deployment of the THAAD system in the ROK as only an option in theory. Later, the US either claimed that it has not entered into any talks with the ROK on the deployment of THAAD deployment, or downplayed the urgency of such a need. One thing is certain—dialogue and communication have served to stabilize bilateral ties, and that will hold true whether the softening in stance is to set the stage for cooperation with China, or just a red herring to prod China towards tougher sanctions against the DPRK.