international analysis and commentary

The US and China through the Korean prism

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President Obama’s State of the Union address predictably focused on domestic issues: creating jobs, promoting innovation and out-performing American’s competitors. Yet, all these issues are tied to the economic relationship with China.

In the wake of the Obama-Hu summit, economic interdependence is clearly the baseline for this bilateral relationship. However international diplomacy is the real pivot around which the strength of the US-China relationship should be evaluated.

In the State of the Union, President Obama explicitly mentioned the standoff on the Korean Peninsula, a conflict which illustrates diplomatic tensions between the US and China. Washington’s power to influence Beijing over Pyongyang or Chinese intransigence in this respect will define the power-dynamics of the US-China bilateral relationship. Nonetheless as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated “dramatic breakthroughs” are foolish to expect.

Alarm bells influenced the run-up to the Obama-Hu summit. On the one hand, Washington criticized Chinese unwillingness to call on Pyongyang to account for its attack on a South Korean navy vessel in March, the development of a uranium enrichment facility and the shelling of a coastal island in November. On the other hand, Beijing reacted strongly to Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and the US’s expected arms sales to Taiwan, not to mention the diverging views over the Nobel Peace prize going to Liu Xiaobo.

Obama’s administration had followed a policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea. However in the second half of 2010, the perceived threat not only to US regional allies – South Korea and Japan – but also to US territory has increased. North Korea is apparently only 5 years away from developing a ballistic missile system capable of targeting not only US military bases but also its mainland.

A gradual shift in US-China security relations over the Korean Peninsula is envisaged. Nonetheless, a common definition of the Korea problem by the US and China must be formulated, a vision which hasn’t crystallized quite yet.

Beijing and Washington – albeit for different reasons – have big stakes in the peninsula. China wishes to preserve a strategic buffer to prevent Korean reunification whereas the US is concerned with supporting its key regional allies and not creating a precedent for “rogue” states. China wants to avoid being put in the international spotlight each time North Korea has an offensive outburst.

The events in the wake of the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island exemplify diplomatic attempts to devise a common or at least an overlapping response to Pyongyang. Beijing calls on the US to stand-up to Pyongyang’s incitement in order to reinstate the six-party talks – high level negotiations amongst North and South Korea, Russia, China, the US and Japan – and to move the world’s attention off of China. The US, instead, would like China to exert greater leadership and assertiveness towards Kim Jong-il’s regime. For Washington, greater leverage must be exercised by China to stop North Korea’s provocations.

In fact, Chinese diplomacy might be moving in a more favorable direction for the US. According to recent Japanese revelations, China did exert direct influence over Pyongyang during US-South Korea joint live-fire drills in December. In a moment of extreme tension, with South Korea conducting its greatest ever joint live-fire artillery exercises just a few miles from the 38th parallel border, an escalation of military tensions was possible. However China cut off oil supplies to North Korea and dispatched fighter jets to Pyongyang – in a move to counterweight US led military dominance – but also to prevent North Korea’s retaliation.

Whilst these Chinese decisions can be interpreted as measures to prevent military escalation they must also be evaluated in the context of the bilateral summit. Hu Jintao had no interest in jeopardizing his state visit at a time when his leadership is already being challenged not only within the Communist Party but also by military ranks. Significant in this respect was the oddly timed announcement of the first Chinese “invisible” fighter jets during the Gates visit to Beijing.

To maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, China explicitly called for the resumption of the six-party talks. The proposal was rejected by Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, who condemned it as a simple PR stunt on the part of Beijing. These countries demand concrete actions by Pyongyang as a precondition to reinstate the six-party talks, namely to reaffirm the 2005-2007 denuclearization agreements and to freeze its uranium enrichment program.

Furthermore, the US sees the necessity of a bilateral dialogue between North and South Korea as a prerequisite to restart the six-party talks. The question of what is the benefit of reinstating the talks looms in the air. They have not taken place for more than three years and dialogue can be blocked by long-held national disputes – such as the abduction issues between Pyongyang and Tokyo. However bringing together three UN Security Council Members, Japan, North and South Korea has an important diplomatic significance. Firstly, from these multilateral negotiations standing agreements can emerge. Secondly, China not wanting the talks to be inconclusive is forced to push North Korea towards greater concessions.

A declaration of the reinstatement of the six-party talks was not foreseen at the press conference in Washington, but Obama and Hu’s joint call to increase US-China communication had immediate repercussions in Korea.

The next day Pyongyang proposed high-level defense talks with Seoul a decision which could lead to the gradual reinstatement of the talks. This decision will be positively received by the US as another step towards increasing strategic mutual trust with China.

In this context, the power dynamics over the Korean Peninsula appear to be in the hands of US diplomacy. However, doubts remain whether China will continue the policy of pressing North Korea into dialogue and cooperation with the South once US attention wanes away.

As the 2011 State of the Union speech focused on major domestic constraints, it indirectly reminded us that should America’s engagement in the world dwindle, the repercussions would be very wide and rather unpredictable.