To address the North Korea’s nuclear weapon problem and achieve a long-term peace of the Peninsula, Washington made a severe mistake in in alienating China. The positive reciprocity between China and the United States in 2017 regarding a multilateral approach to pressure Pyongyang was destroyed by the Trump administration’s attitude towards Taiwan and trade. Unlike their Western peers who are more used to a case-by-case method, Chinese policymakers tend to think about their policy collectively. Before drafting policy, they will first reach a comprehensive judgment about the nature of specific issues, and then this judgment becomes the cornerstone of all detailed policies.Washington needs to better understand the Chinese calculation of the North Korea crisis and stop its case-by-case strategy.
In the last two decades, China got itself into an awkward situation in the Korean Peninsula. Beijing wanted too much and did not (or could not) do enough to change the status of the Korean Peninsula into a favorable direction. On the one hand, China prematurely exposed its policy baselines in the 1990s: the stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the sustainment of Chinese interests. Beijing likes Pyongyang’s nuclear program no more than Washington because it escalates the tensions on the Peninsula. On the other hand, if China puts too much pressure on North Korea, Pyongyang may collapse and be replaced by a pro-U.S. entity, which is far worse for the Chinese interests than an unregulated Kim regime. These inconsistent interests generate an contradicted policy. For years, Beijing tried to convince the world it “does not hold the key” toward the denuclearization of the Peninsula. However, a direct participant of the Six-Party Talks, a series of negotiations aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program, said in an interview that when the United States and North Korea planned several bilateral meetings around 2007, just as the Chinese proposed, Beijing showed a sense of anxiety of being left out in the process.
As a result of this mixed policy, Beijing became the outlier that is not favored by both the United States and North Korea. Several Chinese experts have stated that the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang came to its lowest point in 2017. From the Chinese perspective, Pyongyang’s provocative approaches increase the possibility of a U.S.-led military operation in the region. Such operations could very likely escalate into a large-scale conflict and ruin the stable international environment for China’s continuing developments. From Pyongyang’s perspective, by launching more serious sanctions on North Korea, China became a traitor of the traditional friendship and the communist ideology. As a result, Beijing was unwillingly moving into a direction against North Korea in 2017 such as when Fu Ying, a high-level Chinese diplomat, mentioned the possibility of a post-Kim North Korea for the first time.
Another factor behind the changes of the Chinese attitude toward North Korea in 2017 was that Beijing attempted to stabilize its relations with the United States by catering the requests of the Trump administration. After the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Chinese policymakers faced enormous uncertainties regarding its stance toward the new administration. In March, an anonymous expert said in an interview that in 2017, Beijing was trying to stabilize the relationship by catering to the demands of the United States, such as more pressure on Pyongyang from Beijing. Such efforts seemed fruitful until the end of 2017 as the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, did not hold China accountable on issues like human rights or the South China Sea until the trade war in 2018. In return, China increased its pressure against North Korea, aiding the compromise of Kim to attend a meeting with President Trump in 2018.
However, the Trump administration’s policy towards Taiwan and the trade issue destroyed this reciprocity that had been built in 2017 between China and the United States. In March 2018, Washington passed the Taiwan Travel Act, shaking its previous stance on the One-China Policy. Such an act was incredibly troublesome in Beijing’s perspective as the Democratic Progressive Party currently holds power in Taiwan and it is known for its pro-independence stance. Soon after signing the Taiwan Travel Act, President Trump declared a trade war against China. Even though Beijing and Washington reached an agreement on May 19, Washington unilaterally declared the tariffs would be placed three days after.This decision created tensions that ultimately affected negotiations and policies relating to other issues areas. In fact, despite the lack of actual policy to amend the problem, Washington seems to realize that it cannot expect China will remain cooperative while Washington challenges its core interests.
Furthermore, Washington created a problematic situation in its North Korea policy. First, Pyongyang agreed that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would be an acceptable future, whereas it give no explicit explanations regarding the meaning of denuclearization, nor a detailed timeline in the joint statement from the Trump-Kim Summit. Second, President Trump compromised too easily on issues like joint military drills. Finally, by sticking to the Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) policy, Washington set up an unrealistic policy target and kept selling it to the public. If the Trump administration lowers its bar, it could face tremendous challenges regarding its policy credits domestically and internationally. If failed, Trump’s North Korea policy will also become a vast target of his opponent in the next election. However, if Washington strictly holds its expectation on the CVID, it will become the outlier that challenges the current stability, which also means the CVID is impossible to achieve solely with coercion.
As a conclusion, the development after the historical meeting between President Trump and Chairman Kim in Singapore has proven that North Korea will not give up its current nuclear capability without a non-reversible security guarantee from Washington. In this context, the last thing Washington wants is a competitive Beijing in the North Korea issue, because Pyongyang will be unlikely to give in to Washington’s demands with Beijing at its back. The Trump administration needs to lower its expectation on the CVID and stop unnecessary confrontation with Beijing, such as the trade war. Washington must stop hoping Beijing will accept its case-by-case strategy and maintain cooperation in the denuclearization of North Korea.
* * *
Yu (Tony) Pan is a Research Assistant at the Partnership for Global Security, where he focuses on nuclear security, climate change, nuclear energy, and providing communications support. Born and raised in China, Tony holds a master’s degree in International Relations (specialized in international security and Asian affairs) from the George Washington University. He currently focuses the international security issues, nuclear security, and Asian affairs.