The Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues both have influence on China’s diplomatic and security policies. On these two issues, China and the U.S. share some common interests, but also have different approaches.
Both Iran and North Korea seem resolute in their strategic nuclear orientation, sharing the belief in nuclear capabilities as a vital instrument for protecting their regimes, elevating their international status and shielding them from foreign invasion or other forms of encroachment on their interests. The United States seems to rank highly in these two countries’ consideration in their nuclear strategy, while the U.S. has a highly adversarial relationship with them due to its role in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. Both Iran and the DPRK have seen themselves as threatened by powerful hostile forces, and regard their nuclear capabilities as a kind of amulet. Moreover, these two issues have profound and far-reaching geopolitical and strategic implications not only in their regions but also in the world. In seeking solutions to these issues, people have a broad consensus that a diplomatic approach is more preferable, while the use of force is not a good option, nor is the break-up of the countries. Now in both cases, a six-party regime has emerged as the preferred modality for negotiating a diplomatic resolution.
Though the two issues have some similarities, there are also differences. In comparison, Iran stands out as a more pluralistic, diverse and open society with more ties with the external world than the DPRK.
For China, the two issues have posed challenges to China’s politics, diplomacy, economy and trade, and energy security. China is willing to work with the world community, including the U.S., to ensure peace and security in the regions, because that is also in China’s interest.
Obviously, China and the U.S. can cooperate in helping find solutions to these two issues. They both agree to achieve nuclear non-proliferation, promote the nuclear disarmament process, and consolidate the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review mechanisms. Both do not want to see world stability affected by these two issues nor the occurrence of a regional nuclear arms race. Moreover, these are also issues for China-U.S. cooperation under the framework of a new model of major-country relations.
Nevertheless, China and the United States also differ in their approaches to these issues. For example, China believes that relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council should be implemented in a comprehensive manner. China has supported five UN Security Council resolutions against Iran over its nuclear program. However, these sanctions are not an end in themselves. China is not in favor of excessive pressure on Iran or unilateral sanctions against it. China is firmly opposed to double standards, and to the use of force or threats to use force. The U.S., ignoring Israel’s nuclear capabilities, has all along strongly urged Iran to cooperate fully and immediately with the IAEA on all issues. At the same time, the U.S. has adopted sanctions measures to reduce Iran’s oil revenues and isolate its Central Bank from the international financial system, keeping pressure on the Iranian regime.
Likewise, in the North Korea case, the U.S. has emphasized sanctions and has been skeptical of the effectiveness of further Six-Party Talks. Along with South Korea and Japan, the U.S. believes it would be premature to discuss reconvening the Six-Party Talks until there is evidence that North Korea is committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and programs. For China, maintaining stability in Northeast Asia is critical. China’s principles for the DPRK nuclear issue are: denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, upholding peace and stability of the region, and solving problems through dialogues. China wishes to see a return to dialogue through the mechanism of the Six-Party Talks. Many Chinese believe that frequent U.S. military drills in the region, enhanced relations with its allies, and more deployment of weapon systems, have exerted increasing pressure on North Korea, leading to more suspicions and hostility. China is unwilling to discuss with the U.S. about the North Korea’s “regime collapse” or “regime change,” because China believes no country has the right to impose a system or government on others. China would like to see reforms by North Koreans themselves and to see stability and prosperity in the region. China would also like to see a normalization of relations between the U.S. and the DPRK, and a phased integration of North and South Koreas.
Despite their different thinking and approaches towards these issues, China and the United States still share strong common interest in resolving the issues. What is now important is to translate the common interest into a cooperative action plan.