New Leaders Forum

The Logic of China’s Korea Policy

China sees the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a threat. Its policy toward North Korea shouldn’t surprise.

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.  

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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.