China and the U.S. will hold their first summit meeting this week. Though the concrete schedule has not been released, there is no doubt that the North Korean nuclear issue will be a hot topic between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump. Before this, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concurred that both sides should make a joint effort to deal with the threats derived from North Korean nuclear development. Though similar bilateral statements have echoed during North Korea’s compulsive pursuit of nuclear weapons, this declaration seems distinctive and meaningful. Pyongyang launched 13 missile tests and two nuclear tests in 2016, which seemingly constitutes the most urgent challenge to the security of the Northeast Asia region.
The prospects for US-China cooperation on North Korea will depend on whether the convergences of their interests will outweigh their divergences. The first convergence lies in preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons and technologies and materials. China and the U.S. are both members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The denuclearization of the peninsula not only benefits their national interests but also contributes to their reputations as international major powers. The second is safeguarding peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula. In view of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea and the special relationship of China and North Korea, any firework exploded on the peninsula will entangle the two global powers in disorder and even conflict, which they have been trying to avoid. The third is China’s irreplaceable role on the nuclear issue. When entering into a new era of security inter-dependence, the US government realized that it is imperative for Chinese endeavors and efforts to impact North Korean nuclear choices. China also has taken the North Korean nuclear issue as one to burnish its image as a responsible big power. These three convergences paved the way for Sino-US cooperation as the Six-Party Talks followed North Korea’s previous nuclear tests.
However, the Kim regime never gave up the determination to develop nuclear weapons for security assurance. Pyongyang has tested what is apparently a hydrogen bomb and launched a ballistic missile in 2017. According to a report posted on the 38 North website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, North Korea is preparing the sixth nuclear test that demonstrates its increasingly enhanced nuclear capability. The three consensuses that once underlined China-US cooperation now face a historic test.
First, though U.S. and Chinese official rhetoric declared denuclearization and stability as their core interests, the priorities of the two countries diverge. For China, due to the historic and geopolitical “close tie” with North Korea, the stability of Pyongyang’s authority, the Korean Peninsula and even Northeast Asia are the biggest concerns. Concomitant with this strategic priority, China has so far perceived the North Korean nuclear aspiration and pursuit as a strategic and comprehensive point concerned with North Korean national security rather than merely nuclear proliferation and threat. China has always insisted that North Korea, as a normal sovereignty, deserves comprehension and respect from the international community.
However, blocking proliferation of nuclear weapons is the foremost goal of the U.S. as postulated in the Nuclear Posture Review, Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Employment Strategy. The U.S. regards North Korea as a failed country with a bogged-down economy, a dictatorial political system and abnormal military power favoring nuclear weapons. If the economic ties to the international society are cut through sanctions, the collapse of North Korea will be certain.
The second divergence embodies process. China has always insisted on diplomatic negotiation and peaceful dialogue to deal with the Gordian knot. Economic sanction is an optional choice on the table but not the decisive one. For Obama’s administration, dialogue, negotiation, sanction, threat of force use and military strike were all seen as available options. Tillerson has declared that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea has ended and predicts a reconsidered U.S. policy with the option of regime change and the potential “direct military conflict”. There is little question that Trump sees little result from Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” and decided to make a total shift.
Third, Chinese once-imperative role is now seen differently in most American eyes. It was widely believed in the U.S. that China, the only country that has maintained reliable communication channels with the Pyongyang regime, thus possesses the capability and responsibility to decisively influence it. However, in Washington’s view, China didn’t assume the responsibility and allowed the situation to get even worse. China is forced to face the awkward question of whether to adopt a tougher stance towards its longtime friend, or allow the North Korean nuclear issue to develop into an international crisis and hurt China’s responsible stakeholder image. On the other hand, there is little debate in China that Pyongyang’s fear of the U.S. desire to destabilize the Kim regime is the fundamental driver of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The U.S. should stop its annual military exercises with South Korea, remove its military presence in the region and negotiate a peace treaty as a starting point for denuclearization. As on the Korean Peninsula deteriorates, the strategic mistrust rooted in China-US relations has deteriorated accordingly.
With the U.S. acknowledgement that the U.S.-China relationship was guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” during Tillerson’s Asian visit, the extent of cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue would become a touchstone for the bilateral relations: Will they evolve into a new model of big-power relations or not? With the Xi-Trump summit on the horizon, the bilateral economic relationship and the North Korean nuclear issue clearly will be key issues on the table.
Nevertheless, unlike the former, the North Korean nuclear issue is a complex problem that needs more than just diplomatic craftsmanship. It is a product of Pyongyang’s unilateral nationalist appeals, the bilateral contradictions of the peninsula and even strategic mistrust between the U.S. and China. Retaining the convergences and thawing their divergences may not be easy, but that is the only option to stop the situation from getting worse.