Features | Security | East Asia

U.S., China’s Clashing Korea Dreams

The U.S. policy of outsourcing its North Korea policy to China has been a dismal failure. Beijing has very different ideas from Washington on what the Korean Peninsula should look like.

By Parris H. Chang for

A month after North Korea’s failed attempt to launch a satellite, and there are further signs that the country is continuing to make preparations for what would be its third nuclear test. This comes despite repeated warnings against any further provocative actions from the United States, Japan and South Korea. The problem is that, rightly or wrongly, Pyongyang appears to assume that it can count on the support of its traditional ally China. It’s a mindset that means the Kim Jong-un regime is unlikely to be deterred from its current course.

It’s true that China went along with the United States last month in adopting a U.N. Security Council resolution censuring North Korea over its violation of an earlier resolution prohibiting the country from testing long-range missiles. Yet many remain doubtful whether Beijing would ever actually take the kind of substantive action that might hurt its client state.

Why? Essentially because China’s strategic priorities on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia are simply very different from those of the United States, Japan and South Korea. This was evident at a meeting of the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea in Beijing this month. The three countries agreed during talks that they couldn’t accept North Korean provocations. However, reportedly at China’s request, the joint declaration on “Enhancement of Trilateral Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership” omitted any explicit reference to Pyongyang’s actions.

This omission came despite the clear calls of the Japanese and South Korean leaders on North Korea to rein in its behavior. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, for example, reportedly argued that “the international community must unite to show North Korea its firm commitment” to preventing Pyongyang’s further provocations. Similarly, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak insisted the joint declaration should urge Pyongyang to exercise self-restraint and not to carry out a nuclear test or other provocative actions. The Chinese leadership, though, nixed such language from the declaration.

The summit made clear that although China pays lip service to stability on the Korean Peninsula, repeating as it did its commitment to “realizing a peaceful, stable and prosperous East Asia” and “enhancing  mutual political trust,” the reality is that China’s words are sounding increasingly hollow.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But it’s not just the Japanese and South Korean leaderships that have been destined to be disappointed by Beijing’s stance. Back in March, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Hu in Seoul when world leaders gathered for the nuclear summit. During a 90-minute talk, Obama is said to have pressed Hu to use all instruments of power to rein in Pyongyang and encourage it to scrap its plan to launch a satellite the following month.

It’s clear that Obama didn’t make much headway, yet despite the attempted satellite launch on April 13, China appears to have had little constructive to say in the aftermath. According to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency, Hu assured Obama that China shared his concern about the launch, and was conveying its concerns to Pyongyang. But Xinhua didn’t disclose whether Hu made any specific commitment to Obama, instead saying only that Hu advised the U.S and North Korea to “keep contacts and dialogue, and honor consensus reached between them, so as to improve their relations.”

This wasn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time China and the United States differ over North Korea policy. After all, successive U.S presidents – from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama – have unsuccessfully sought Beijing’s support in trying to restrain North Korea.

It’s true that China voted for the U.S.-sponsored sanctions imposed by the Security Council following North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2006 and 2009, and there have been moments when Beijing seemed to recognize its potential as a responsible international stakeholder (or at least realized that its own diplomatic interests were at stake). But it’s also clear that although Beijing has officially backed U.N. sanctions, it has no intention of actually enforcing such measures. On the contrary, China has been supplying food, oil and other strategic commodities to shore up its North Korean ally. China’s reported timely food shipments in early April, for example, would have helped ease acute food shortages in North Korea, likely emboldening Kim to spurn U.S. food aid and defy U.S. pressure.

The reality is that China sees its national interests as being best served by a secure and stable North Korean regime, and it is determined to do what is necessary to preserve the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike the United States, Japan and South Korea, China doesn’t really worry about a nuclear-armed North Korea, with strategists in Beijing instead seeing North Korea as an important asset – not only as a geographical buffer, but also a useful diplomatic pawn in its dealings with the U.S. and its allies.

It’s possible, of course, that North Korea will at some point succumb to international pressure and suspend further tests of its nuclear and long-range missile programs. But it seems more likely that until it has fully mastered the technology for mounting and launching nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, that it will continue with its tests. After all, the Kim regime – and especially the powerful military establishment – believes the survival of the country itself depends on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. In a system that preaches the principle of military first, military leaders almost certainly dominate decision making, especially with the country’s new young leader still trying to find his feet.

The U.S. policy of engagement, and its dependence on China’s goodwill in trying to realize Pyongyang’s denuclearization, has been a dismal failure. It’s therefore time the Obama administration drew up a new strategy, one that doesn’t outsource the North Korean problem to a Beijing that is pursuing its own, quite different agenda.

The Obama administration must accept that although the U.S. and China sleep in the same bed in East Asia, they have quite different dreams. And the current U.S. approach of endless dialogue with China on this issue risks seeing its dream turned into the nightmare of an even more deadly nuclear North Korea.

Parris H. Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute of Political, Economic and Strategic Studies. He is a former deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council.