The most acute contemporary manifestation of the demand on China to demonstrate responsible leadership is the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Le Hong Hiep speculated on the prospect of a grand bargain between Trump and Xi when they met at Mar-a-Lago to accommodate US concerns on its massive bilateral trade deficit and on North Korea’s nuclear program in return for meeting China’s concerns on US anti-missile deployments in South Korea. Such a deal was correctly assessed as unlikely.
Can China help? Chinese leaders and analysts separate their personal distaste for the risk-prone and prickly Kim from their abiding strategic interests vis-à-vis the peninsula. Stability and conflict-avoidance in its immediate region remains a vital national interest for China’s development and peaceful rise. Heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear antics risk an uncontrolled armed conflict, strengthened US–Japan–South Korea alliances, and enhanced prospects of nuclear breakouts by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. On the other hand a reunified Korea in alliance with the US would be even less compliant in accommodating China’s strategic and foreign policy interests, while any regime collapse in Pyongyang would produce a flood of unwelcome refugees streaming into China. On balance, in China’s calculation the status quo of a nuclearized North Korea, however unpalatable, is preferable to the upheaval that would result from military strikes or regime collapse.
US threats likely also stir memories among elderly Chinese of how they were treated in the early year’s of China’s own nuclear program. Nor have Chinese forgotten the 200,000 soldiers who died in the Korean War. Some Chinese harbour suspicions that Washington has a strategy to imprison China in a ‘North Korean trap’. Fu Ying, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress and former ambassador to Australia (2004–07), voices a common complaint that Washington expects Beijing to influence North Korea but ignores advice and proposals tabled by China, even though the main driver of Pyongyang’s security policy is US action. Earlier she argued that China lacks ‘leverage to force either the U.S. or the DPRK to assume their respective responsibilities’. Nevertheless China remains committed to peaceful negotiation that may not meet the optimal demands of any party but would bring maximal benefits to all at minimum cost.
The surprise winner from the escalating crisis in 2017 was China. President Xi remained circumspect, calm and statesmanlike, urging restraint on both sides and calling for a phased program to reduce tension on the peninsula. Each new tweet and step on the escalation ladder did further damage to the US reputation for responsible global leadership while boosting China’s profile and prestige. It also helped to obscure China’s own past culpability in enabling North Korea’s nuclear program while underlining the history of US forcible regime change as the main driver of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition. Any retaliatory trade measures against China would cause substantial damage to the US economy and also to US allies in global supply chains that run increasingly through China.
The unexpected big winner from this year’s Singapore summit was China: its roadmap for Korean peace was effectively endorsed, North Korea is retained as a strategic buffer, and China holds pole position to be the key player in the search for a peace regime in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. A wedge is being driven among US Pacific allies to match trans-Atlantic divisions. Beijing, which accounts for over 80 percent of North Korea’s trade, is unlikely to revert to strong sanctions. Only it can offer fallback guarantees to the Kim regime and family should the US breach the Declaration and return to military threats. An end to US–South Korea ‘war games’ will lower the US and raise China’s military profile in Asia–Pacific. Trump’s post-summit remarks further eroded confidence in US commitment to existing alliance structures and the perception of a softening US commitment to the region is by itself helpful to Beijing’s drive to ease the US out of the region. China is likely to increase pressure on Seoul to cancel the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) ballistic missile system. All three of China, Russia and North Korea will have taken note of US unreliability in honouring the multilaterally negotiated Iran nuclear deal, instead returning to a regime change policy.
Ramesh Thakur FAIIA is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a Fellow of the AIIA.