Responsibility Theory: Russian and US Policy Analysis of China’s Role in the Korea Crisis

By | August 03, 2018 | No Comments

Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meeting with Xi Jinxing. Even as Tillerson and his boss disagreed over North Korea, Tillerson insisted that the American and Chinese heads of state saw eye-to-eye on the DPRK crisis | Image: Wikicommons

Everyone seems to be thinking about Russia these days. But is anyone considering what Russian strategists are thinking, or how Russian foreign policy might impact the Korean peninsula? In a new essay, Anthony Rinna considers how the Kremlin and Washington differ in their views on China’s role in the Korea crisis by looking at Russian and American think tank research. – Steven Denney, Senior Editor

The China Responsibility Theory | Among the many clichés that proliferate amid analysis of Northeast Asia, one which suffers both from overuse to the point of banality as well as derision for being so belabored, is the maxim of “China responsibility.” Among Korea and Northeast Asia specialists, the “China responsibility” notion essentially boils down to the idea that the People’s Republic of China enjoys a disproportionate amount of influence in its ability to rein in, control, or otherwise manipulate the Kim Jong Un regime. Specifically, proponents of the China responsibility line argue that Beijing has paid mainly lip service to UN sanctions while continuing to provide economic lifelines to the DPRK contra the letter of spirit of sanctions. The result is that sanctions have not been successful in bringing about North Korean denuclearization and disarmament.

The Chinese and Russian governments have displayed a notable about of solidarity over the Korea crisis. Yet Russian think tank research covering both China and Korea does not reflect this fact | Image: Wikicommons

Various sectors of the Washington foreign policy establishment have taken turns placing the burden on China for liability in ensuring sanctions have their appropriate bite, or otherwise tolerating North Korea’s behavior. This includes everyone from the US government’s executive branch to established Northeast Asia scholars.

But if China truly is the hand that feeds North Korea and keeps it alive against the outside world, the Chinese authorities have lost patience with this oft-cited criticism. In July 2017, the PRC Foreign Ministry expressed dismay at the prevalence of the China responsibility theory and suggested instead that “contradictions” between the US and North Korea were responsible for Pyongyang’s global misbehavior. (To be fair, as one Global Times editorial noted, even Chinese analysts themselves have taken up the idea that Beijing wields a disproportionate ability to affect the DPRK’s behavior.)

As China and the US are both considered to be “great powers”, it would be remiss to consider dynamics surrounding the Korean Peninsula without considering Russia’s role in this saga. In the case of the China responsibility notion, the differing Russian and American outlooks of the utility of Chinese participation in advancing specific policy goals elucidate how this theory holds up.

No Russian-American Tango Over Korea | Analysis of how Moscow and Washington each perceive the PRC’s role in the crisis offers some insight into the overall state of Russia-US ties in the Korea context. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Russian Federation does not share in the American penchant for ascribing to China both the power and responsibility to “resolve” the Korea crisis. The Kremlin has long highlighted policy alignment with Beijing over North Korea in an alleged spirit of increased Sino-Russian policy convergence. Yet to ascribe Moscow’s unwillingness to place responsibility for resolving the Korea crisis primarily on Beijing’s shoulders to the “ever growing Sino-Russian axis” (itself a much-belabored cliché) misses a key point.

Moscow and Washington do not view China’s role in the Korea crisis differently solely because of the different natures of Beijing Moscow and Sino-American ties, respectively. Rather, Russia and the US’s differing perspectives on China’s role in Korea stem from the manner in which the PRC plays into both Russia and the United States’ interests on the Korean Peninsula. As argued in a previous essay on this topic, where the United States’ top priority in Korea is denuclearization. Moscow is focused more on economic issues.

Friend or Foe, Uncle Sam Wants You, China! The US government has taken up divergent narratives on the nature of China-US relations. The US Department of Defense started off 2018 by declaring China to be a “revisionist power”. For the Pentagon, this means that Beijing seeks to re-arrange the international order in a way that suits Chinese interests contra the established American-led order. While the perceived revision in which China engages has unfolded largely in areas such as the South China Sea, the US defense policy establishment no doubt views China as having a critical role in Korean security.1)In a recent Korea-focused Strategic Multilayer Assessment hosted by the US Department of Defense in which I participated, a large number of my co-participants were specialists in various aspects of China’s foreign policy.

Whether to blame or exhort, the prevailing view in Washington seems to be that China could light the way to a resolution of the Korea crisis in a way favorable to the US | Image: Wikicommons

Meanwhile, the US State Department cites human rights and cybersecurity as being barriers better Sino-American relations, while highlighting the various bilateral forums aimed at improving two-way relations. For State, this includes continuing productive dialogue with the PRC over the Korean nuclear issue.

Whatever way in which the US government assesses the nature of Sino-American ties, across the board there is a seeming consensus that Beijing will inevitably shape American goals in Korea. A previous Sino-NK essay looked at some of the most prominent DC-based think tanks and found no shortage of analysis covering how China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula affects US interests. A large number of these think tanks’ analytical pieces on Beijing’s Korea policy, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused on the implications of China-North Korea trade relations for sanctions enforcement.

Among American think tank publications, placing culpability on China was not necessarily a dominant theme. Many such pieces called for constructive cooperation with Beijing. Nevertheless, the proliferation of analytical pieces that highlight China as playing a key role in the resolution of the Korean security crisis contrasts with the utter lack of corresponding analysis from Moscow’s major think tanks.

Korea in the Beijing-Moscow Strategic Partnership | In contrast to the difficulties in Sino-US relationship, ties between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China are relatively strong. Today, the relationship between the PRC and the Russian Federation is founded on a 2001 treaty of friendship and good-neighborliness. This accord has established the Beijing-Moscow relationship as a “strategic partnership.” The Sino-Russian strategic partnership has been the subject of scholarly analysis since at least the late 1990s, with researchers generally agreeing that no matter how much Sino-Russian interests seem to align, there will always be limitations to the relationship. This is especially true given the fact that there is no coherent conceptualization of what a “strategic partnership” actually entails. Indeed, recent research comparing the Chinese and Russian responses to THAAD’s deployment in South Korea supports the arguments from two decades ago that Beijing and Moscow’s strategic partnership does not imply full coherence even on issues of mutual concern.

The most prominent Russian think tanks offer virtually no insights on how cooperation with China affects Moscow’s interests on the Korean Peninsula. Most of the in-house publications from Russian policy institutes on China-Russia relations focus on the nature of Beijing and Moscow’s ties in the context of the increasing security and economic integration of Central Eurasia. Specific topics covered include the China-Russia relationship in the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as Moscow’s responses to the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Conclusion The differing treatment China receives from Russian and American think tank research on Korea reveals a type of relativism in how Moscow and Washington perceive their own interests toward Korea. If Russia’s primary interests in Korea are focused on economics, then it makes sense that China would have little if any role in Russia’s interests toward the Peninsula. If anything, China may actually be a threat to Moscow’s pursuit of a stronger economic presence on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, if the US’s main end is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and if Washington has set itself on using economic sanctions as a means of realizing this goal, then given the nature of China-North Korea trade relations, emphasis on Beijing’s role in the Korea crisis makes sense from an American policy perspective.


1 In a recent Korea-focused Strategic Multilayer Assessment hosted by the US Department of Defense in which I participated, a large number of my co-participants were specialists in various aspects of China’s foreign policy.

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