The Logic of China’s Korea Policy
Image Credit: David Stanley

The Logic of China’s Korea Policy


Many U.S. and South Korean analysts have become increasingly frustrated, indeed annoyed, by China’s policy toward North Korea. In their view, China’s policy not only jeopardizes the security of the United States and South Korea, but also undermines international norms in a way detrimental to China’s own national interests.

In an eloquent analysis on Pacific Forum CSIS, Ralph Cossa and Brad Glosserman argued that China’s  North Korea policy is “misguided, illogical and self-defeating” because it enables North Korean misbehavior, antagonizes China’s neighbors, contributes to the strengthening of U.S. alliances in the region and tarnishes China’s international image.

But the judgment on whether China’s North Korea policy is illogical or self-defeating very much depends on the perception of China’s goals. Despite all the criticism, most Chinese analysts would argue that China’s policy has its own internal logic, and that suggesting otherwise is to fail to see the issue through Chinese eyes.

The widely accepted assumption in the policy community is that China has three goals on North Korea: stability (i.e. no implosion and no war), peace (diplomatic normalization between the U.S. and North Korea), and denuclearization/nonproliferation. Of these three goals, China prioritizes stability over peace and denuclearization. It’s this secondary status given to denuclearization that’s the biggest sore point for Washington and Seoul, both of whom believe it should be the most important goal for all countries.

However, with the quickening changes in regional dynamics, including U.S. policy, this analysis has missed a fundamental strategic aspect of China’s security assessment, namely that China is increasingly concerned about the strategic intentions of the U.S. towards China, as well as its web of military alliances.  

Washington and Seoul have repeatedly cited the North Korea threat to justify the existence and strengthening of their military alliance, suggesting that the alliance would ultimately lose its rationale for existence once the North Korea issue is resolved, perhaps through reunification. However, as the U.S. and South Korea have sought to “regionalize” and “globalize” the alliance, it has become less and less clear, to policy makers in Beijing at least, that the alliance won’t train its sights on China.  This raises a fundamental question for China: why should Beijing help the U.S. and South Korea with North Korea if it undermines its own security interests in the future?   

The announcement of the U.S. pivot to Asia has only served to intensify such suspicions. The problem is that tensions between the U.S. and China are structural – the rise of China inevitably poses challenges to the United States’ superpower status. This power structure means that certain U.S. and Chinese goals will inevitably be in conflict, and Beijing is bound to see U.S. “meddling” in the South China Sea disputes, as well as announcements over military deployments in the region, as part of a strategy to counter China.

And the U.S.-South Korea alliance is an intrinsic element of this strategy, meaning China’s logic on North Korea policy should be clear: China sees no reason to help the U.S. and South Korea “solve” the North Korea problem because, simply put, China could be next on the list.

Many Chinese analysts see Seoul’s ambiguity on addressing China’s concerns unfortunate. In their view, Seoul is using its diplomatic ambiguity toward China’s concerns to maximize its own policy flexibility, essentially playing the U.S. and China off against each other for its own ends.

This isn’t t suggest that there aren’t problems with China’s North Korea policy. The reality is that North Korea is a troublemaker that costs China dearly in many ways: financially, politically and in terms of security. The vocal debates within the Chinese policy community on what it should do about North Korea are a reflection of how serious the issue has become and how uncomfortable China is with its neighbor. However, when China considers the issue in the broader context of U.S.-China relations, North Korea simply isn’t the most serious or most fundamental challenge to China’s national security and strategic interests. Basically, although the current policy is problematic, the alternative seems worse. That’s why China chooses to “muddle through” on North Korea, all the time hoping that economic reforms will eventually result in a North Korea modeled after China.

Changing China’s mind on this will be extremely difficult. For a start, it will require serious reassurances from the United States and South Korea that advances in their alliance won’t come at China’s expense. Given the amount of distrust China harbors towards the U.S. and South Korea, this may not even be possible. And, although some may argue that there’s an element of paranoia to China’s suspicions, without addressing the strategic elements of Beijing’s reasoning, no amount of lobbying for a change in China’s North Korea policy is likely to work.

Of course, should North Korea launch any new provocations that threaten to drag the region into military conflict, then China may be tempted to shift positions. After all, China is unlikely to want to become embroiled in a direct military conflict with the United States. But China’s response following the two nuclear tests and the 2010 provocations suggests Beijing has a high tolerance for North Korean wrongdoing, China’s and many wonder what exactly is bottom line.

Ultimately, Beijing knows full well that, like it or not, it must live with the U.S.-South Korea military alliance – there’s little it can do to stop it. But that doesn’t mean it has to like it, and its suspicions of U.S. and South Korean intentions mean it sees few reasons to change its current policies and help facilitate a resolution to the North Korea issue. 

Persuading China to change is tough. Properly addressing the root of the problem – Beijing’s underlying fears and suspicions – will be even harder.

Yun Sun is a China analyst based in Washington DC.

August 15, 2012 at 07:26

Nan Yang wrote: "The N Korea problem is all between United States and N Korea."
No it isn't. Unless you forgot, the NKs sunk a SK vessel and shelled a SK village.
If the USA hadn't asked them to hold it back, then there would be a war now between the two. So why hasn't the South shown it to the North who is the boss?
Because China backs the North, Now if you think I dont know what it feels like, I was a civilian reading in the paper threats by the north on how they would shell my town.
China allows NK to act the agressor and until they accept that NK is wrong and tells them to stop killing South Koreans, I will accept that China is the agressor more than the US is. So give it a break, or unleash the whirlwind.

Nan Yang
June 30, 2012 at 02:07

The N Korea problem is all between United States and N Korea.
US wants a Regime Change hence N Korea is still in the Axis of evil.
So N Korea protect itself by building a atomic bomb.
It is all between US and N Korea.
China policy is clear. No war, no collapse, no nuclear bomb.
Japan policy is no united Korea.
Russia has no interest in N Korea.
S Korea is Sunrise policy one minute and Sunset policy the next.

John Chan
June 29, 2012 at 02:41

“the US and China suddenly became best friend” it is harder than asking the sun to rise form the west, providing USA’s predatory imperialist nature.

June 27, 2012 at 22:24

Well said but…. what's next (suggestion, world event…)?

Justin P.
June 27, 2012 at 21:59

You are correct Peter! 

Sin Lok
June 27, 2012 at 14:42

More like a buffer state.

June 25, 2012 at 21:52

why didn't the US sink a N. Korean ship or bombard a N. Korean island if your logic has any truth? The truth is China and N. Korea are seeking provocations to eject the US from the westpac just as you admit is your belief of what should be.

Errol T
June 25, 2012 at 20:24

LOL sad but true

Errol T
June 25, 2012 at 20:23

Ascribing imperialism as a motivation for US/SoKor aggression is a tad bit too optimistic. The US never initiates a war unless there's vengeance to be had, or if its interests are at risk. Right now, it's in the US' interests to let SoKor fully develop like it has in the past decades. As long as NoKor doesn't interfere with the South, then no problem. As far as the US and SoKor is concerned, NoKor could rot from within and leave it at that. Economic integration alone would be a very big challenge. The headache for the alliance comes when NoKor threatens to attack SoKor unless SoKor sends assistance in the form of food or money.

June 25, 2012 at 10:07

Beijing is only reasonable to see that the U.S. web of alliances in Asia is being used to contain China. Any extra headache for the U.S., whether it be Iran or North Korea, is an extra barrier to prevent the U.S. from succeeding.

Lauren Garza
June 24, 2012 at 00:47

North Korea serves as Chinas yapping dog. All great powers have one.

Kimbo Y. Laurel
June 23, 2012 at 15:01

North Korea is the problem in the international affair over the nuclear program and being as a threat in the East Asia region. PROC allied with the North Korea as mean a diplomatic leverage against the influence of US and Japan but North Korea becomes more liability for the PROC. What do you expect of PROC which has the regime of dictatorship which put the stability of the state than the rights of individuals.

June 23, 2012 at 04:46

In addition to my comment:
The real reason why the US/S.Korean has not attacked N.Korea yet is not the fear of its nuclear weapons.A full blown conventional war between the Koreas will bring about massive destruction on both.
The countries that are really concerned with a nuclear-armed and paranoid N.Korea are really China and Japan. Both countries are waiting for the US to pre-emptively take out its nuclear arsenal . Despite all the brouhahas coming from China and Japan, both countries are just relaxing and watching the chicken-games being played between N.Korea and US/S.Korea. Certtainly, China and Japan are ready to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. This is one of the few issue where China and Japan share congruent strategic interest.

June 23, 2012 at 02:15

Seems like some good old fasioned Cold War thinking on China's part…

June 23, 2012 at 00:15

This analysis is straight to the point!!  It  is thoroughly different from all the Western cold war warriors.
The fact is that the US has never forgiven North Korea and China for fighting to a stalemate in the 50s. It has never stop trying to win the war through economic means and diplomatic intimidation: supporting S. Korea's economic & military development and sanctions on N. Korea, hoping for N. Korea to collapse.
The game has changed with the development of China's economy through the Beijing Model that would open the way for N.Korea development once its new leadership decide to take it. This would close the door for US-S.Korea ambition of unifying the koreas similiar to Germany.
Yes, N.Korea's nuclear development is a danger to all its neighbors including china itsel which is just 40 minutes away from a ballistic missile from N. Korea. The US-S. Korea alliance hse always been there and is getting desperate. Its is intent to start an incident to attack N.Korea militarily since the German solution is now not possible. The only thing that restrain the US-SKorea is that a full scale Korean war would stop the N.Korean nucelar developement. But it would destroy the S. Korea industrial infrastructure that is so close to the N.Korean border. Who would then be capable ot picking up the pieces? Certainly not the US nor S.Korea but China.
As for China, it has never deceived itself as to the intent of the US and its alliances to contain China. The US was distracted and resources depleted during the last decade by Iraq/Afghanistan and now Iranian situation. No doubt about the intent of the so-called Pivtot to Asia. This intent to contain China has nothing to do with China's No. Korean policy. This is the reality that China lives with. Any coercion, cajoling, etc. will not work on  China until the US pull its Pacific Fleet back to Hawaii.
This US containment is a fact that China has to live with and had done so since 1949.  China is gingerly side stepping the US-lackeys state alliances to create incidents in the South China Seas too.  China is handling the situation extremely well indeed.

June 22, 2012 at 20:19

sounds about right, nk has never been about the koreans, its always been about the powers that supports them.

if the sky fell tomorrow, and the US and China suddenly became best friends, the korean problem would be solve in a years time.

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