Time for China to flex diplomatic muscle to defuse Korean crisis
Amid rhetoric and threats of nuclear action, Beijing must tighten screws on Pyongyang
North Korean soldiers salute during a military parade to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP
When Donald Trump hosted Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago and appeared, over chocolate cake, to win the Chinese leader over to his approach for dealing with the Korean nuclear crisis, it put China into central role as peace broker.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, China has been the main prop holding up the flagging North Korean economy, and both countries like to talk of how they are as “close as lips and teeth” since the Korean War of 1950-1953 in which Chinese and Korean troops fought side-by-side against US-led forces.
Trump is keen to leverage this closeness to North Korea to bring about an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
China likes to point out that it doesn’t have as much influence as Washington thinks. But China also dislikes the nuclear tests and missile launches on its borders, especially since Kim Jong-un has left Beijing out of the loop on the project.
And the relationship is indeed tense right now. The apparent assassination of North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who had strong links to China and lived in safety in Macau for years, has added to the strain.
The Chinese government believes the US has leverage in North Korea and while it may agree to tighten economic sanctions here and there, it strongly believes that dialogue is the only way to resolve the situation, not more sanctions.
Xi has called Trump to say the crisis must be resolved peacefully and has mentioned the six-party talks, involving China, both Koreas and Japan, which collapsed in 2008 after North Korea launched a rocket.
A recent editorial in China’s Global Times, which is published by the same group that prints the People’s Daily and often reflects the Communist Party’s thinking, seemed to indicate that China will back even tougher sanctions.
“There’s some triage going on right now where the Chinese leaders are sending signals and taking short-term action to pull everyone away from the cliff,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“China is trying to give something to both Washington and Pyongyang. It’s a little more creative than just six-party talks. I don’t agree with the view you sometimes hear that it’s a fundamental shift in Chinese strategy. The Chinese don’t like the missile tests and they will go ahead with sanctions, but they don’t believe sanctions will work,” said Delury.
Despite UN sanctions, North Korea fired at least 25 projectiles and detonated two nuclear devices in 2016, and a sixth nuclear test is expected any day now.
China has come up with two proposals through foreign minister Wang Yi. The first is a short-term patch of freezing testing and then, longer term, the focus is on talks to come up with a peace treaty.
“China believes that the US is the one with the leverage in negotiations with North Korea. And China is right that unrelenting pressure is not the way to get North Korea to change its mind,” says Delury.
For Xi, the role of peacemaker comes at a time when he needs to stabilise China’s relationship with the US ahead of the vitally important 19th Communist Party congress in the autumn, at which he will further strengthen his grip on power.
“What’s driving Chinese behaviour at this particular moment of tension on the Korean peninsula is Donald Trump, and his unpredictability,” said Paul Haenle, a former White House National Security Council official who now directs the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.
“Xi needs to demonstrate that he can manage China’s most important bilateral relationship, and get it back on a positive and constructive trajectory. President Trump has made Chinese co-operation on North Korea a key requirement for that to happen,” said Haenle.
This has put Xi in a position in which he must balance between tightening the screws on Pyongyang to demonstrate to Trump that he is willing to work with the US, while also ensuring that tensions don’t escalate into a costly war.
Military action would feed Kim Jong-un’s long-held belief that the US wants to overthrow his government.
A conflict on the Korean Peninsula would have spillover for China because of the humanitarian and refugee crisis that it would have to deal with at its borders.
China is also worried about the possible collapse of North Korea if too much pressure is applied. A united Korea aligned with the US on China’s border is a major threat, as we can see from China’s fierce opposition to the deployment of the US anti-missile defence system the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).
“China will continue to press for the resumption of dialogue. But until the US sees evidence of a serious commitment by the North on denuclearisation, I think dialogue is not on the cards,” said Haenle.
“The state department and other White House officials have made it clear that their policy now is to maximise pressure. The eventual hope is that pressure would lead North Korea back to the table for talks on denuclearisation, but my sense is that that is a long way off,” said Haenle.
Trump has implied that he received tacit approval from China for the missile strike on Syria, which also happened during the dinner at Mar-a-Lago, which would be surprising as it goes against China’s policy of opposing military action.
“This stand-down was reinforced the next week by China’s abstention vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s chemical attack, forcing Russia to cast the only veto among the P5. So maybe there is something to the idea of US-China co-operation,” Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston from the Peterson Institute write in a research note.
There are also questions about whether China, with its ultra-cautious approach to foreign policy, can sustainably handle Trump’s style of tweeting off information and acting impulsively.
Another case in point is that of the Carl Vinson nuclear strike force, which Trump described as an “armada” heading to Korea when in fact it was headed elsewhere. This kind of public bluffing rankles with the Chinese.
But having a central role in addressing a regional problem is something that will appeal to the Chinese, as they try to earn the diplomatic muscle to match the country’s growing economic strength.