Evidence mounts that China is becoming increasingly frustrated and annoyed with its North Korean ally. Not only did Beijing vote in favor of the two most recent rounds of sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed on Pyongyang, but statements by Chinese leaders directed to Kim Jong-un’s regime have become noticeably more pointed and caustic. China’s Foreign Ministry explicitly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test in February, and Beijing issued escalating criticism of the DPRK’s shrill rhetoric and saber rattling directed against the United States, South Korea, and Japan. In early April, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that “no one should be allowed to throw the region, even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi, relating a conversation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said bluntly: “We oppose provocative words and actions from any party in the region and do not allow troublemaking on China’s doorstep.” Observers in East Asia and the United States viewed those comments as a rebuke to North Korea.
Beijing’s attitude has certainly shifted away from the one-time pervasive equation of China’s relations with North Korea as being “as close as lips and teeth.” The Obama administration apparently perceives that change as well. An April 5 story in the New York Times reported that the administration, “detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea,” was now “pressuring” Xi’s government “to crack down on Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.” National Security Adviser Tom Donilon expressed optimism that China’s position regarding North Korea’s disruptive behavior was “evolving” – and apparently in a beneficial direction.
China’s policy is undoubtedly the crucial variable in dealing with the North Korean crisis. China provides its dysfunctional ally with approximately half of the food supplies and 80 to 90% of the energy supplies that it needs. If Beijing ever decided to sever that aid pipeline, Kim’s regime would be in very serious trouble.
But Chinese leaders are reluctant to take such a drastic step, lest the North Korean state implode and create multiple problems for China. The most immediate risk would be a humanitarian crisis, with desperate refugees pouring across the border into China. The broader strategic risk would be the disappearance of the North Korean territorial buffer between the Chinese homeland and the rest of Northeast Asia, which consists of US allies.
Pyongyang’s current fomenting of tensions, while disturbing to Beijing, is not sufficient to impel Xi’s government to take stronger action, given that risk. The Times’s observation that China might face a stronger US military presence in the region if North Korea is not reined-in is correct, but even that outcome might not be enough to get Beijing to get tough with its ally. Indeed, since the end of Mao Zedong’s rule, Chinese leaders have regarded the US military role in East Asia with mixed emotions. They do suspect that one motive for Washington’s policy is to contain China’s growing influence in the region, but they also regard that presence as a leash on key countries, especially Japan, who might otherwise play more active, assertive security roles of their own.
If the Obama administration wants China to be more proactive in preventing North Korea from disrupting the peace of the region, it needs to alter the incentive structure. Although Chinese leaders may be somewhat ambivalent about the overall US military presence in East Asia, they certainly do not want US bases perched on the Chinese border if North Korea collapses and a united Korea emerges. They saw how Washington exploited East Germany’s collapse to incorporate a united Germany in NATO, and they desire no repetition in their neighborhood. As a “carrot” to offer Beijing, the United States should explicitly agree that if Korean reunification takes place under Seoul’s leadership, there will be no attempt to move US troops or bases into former North Korean territory. Since Washington’s defense treaty with Seoul would have no rationale without a North Korean threat, the Obama administration should further commit to phasing-out all existing US bases on the Peninsula and terminating the alliance itself within three years of reunification.
The “stick” in such a carrot-and-stick strategy should be to exploit one of China’s greatest worries: that other East Asian nations, especially Japan, might match Pyongyang’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons state. Washington has gone to great lengths to alleviate any concerns that Beijing might have on that score. A succession of US administrations have strongly discouraged either Seoul or Tokyo from even considering that option. Indeed, it was intense US pressure that caused the South Korean government of Park Chung-hee to terminate its very active nuclear development program in the late 1970s. And in every recent crisis involving North Korea, US officials have re-emphasized Washington’s firm commitment to defend its allies by whatever means necessary.
That commitment implies that there is, therefore, no need for the East Asian allies to develop deterrents of their own. Such a smothering strategy provides an indirect, but very real, assurance to Beijing that it need not fear either South Korea or Japan going nuclear. It is a misguided strategy. Although further proliferation in Northeast Asia would hardly be a good development, having nuclear weapons in the hands of stable democratic countries like Japan and South Korea does not pose a credible threat to US security or global peace.
US officials should inform their Chinese counterparts that if North Korea insists on crashing the global nuclear weapons club, the United States will no longer stand in the way of Seoul and Tokyo following suit. While we should not encourage Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals, neither should we seek to prevent them from doing so, if they conclude that their national security requires that step. Washington should respect whatever decision they reach, and that new stance should be made emphatically clear to the Chinese government.
It is not certain that such a carrot-and-stick approach would finally cause Chinese leaders to take whatever action is necessary to end North Korea’s dangerous, destabilizing behavior. But the current US strategy has not done so, and there is little evidence that continuing that strategy will achieve any better results in the future. A new approach offers at least the prospect of getting the one power that might be able to end the North Korean crisis to overcome its reluctance and indecision and finally take the necessary steps.