Power and the Periphery: The North Korea Factor in Sino-American Relations

By | July 09, 2020 | No Comments

The Korean Peninsula, particularly its northern half, is and will continue to be one of the most important factors in China’s peripheral-level foreign policy, while at the same time factoring into Beijing’s relationship with Washington | Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Inseparable from the subtext of discussions over the current pandemic is the specter of great power competition between China and the United States, an issue that extends into spheres both geographic and topical. Furthermore, the current flurry of speculation over Kim Jong-un’s health, regardless of the actual situation, is a sobering reminder that any unplanned changes in the North Korean leadership will bring the DPRK to the forefront of Chinese and American policymakers’ attention. 

Sino-NK Senior Editor Anthony Rinna’s Power and the Periphery: the North Korea Factor in Sino-American Relations provides an  overview of China’s North Korea strategy as it relates to the Sino-American relationship. Delving into the longer history of great power competition starting with the momentous shifts in Chinese policies in the post-Mao Zedong era, Sino-NK’s latest analysis provides insights into the implications the DPRK has for China-US relations, as well as how ties between Beijing and Washington affect North Korea’s diplomacy with the US. – Yujin Lim, analyst

Power and the Periphery: The North Korea Factor in Sino-American Relations

by Anthony Rinna

China’s ties with North Korea, even as Beijing’s relationship with South Korea has been on the mend following the fallout from the THAAD controversy, constitute its strongest relationship on the Korean Peninsula. Yet in spite of the longevity and rhetoric behind China-DPRK relations, Chinese discourse over the DPRK has shifted from describing the “North Korea nuclear problem” to the “North Korea problem.” The Chinese government must also contend with sharpening public opinion against Pyongyang, although Chinese officials are less tolerant of criticism toward the DPRK at the popular level. Maintaining decent relations with the North is still a priority for Beijing.

North Korea’s deliberate security provocations, however, are far from being the only factor complicating Beijing and Pyongyang’s “lips and teeth” relations. At present, Beijing finds itself performing a balancing act between maintaining peripheral security while not allowing solid ties with the DPRK to upset China’s relations with Washington.

Sino-American Relations over Korea at the Great Power Level  | The China-US rapprochement of the 1970’s – begun under Richard Nixon’s outreach to Mao Zedong – initiated changes to the balance of power in East Asia, then accelerated by the collapse of the USSR. In the post-Cold War era, East Asia has been moving toward a dual hierarchy whereby the US remains the top security actor in the region, with China taking an increasingly fortified position as East Asia’s primary economic power.

The augmentation of Chinese influence in East Asia as a whole roughly coincides not only with post-Cold War shifts in the interstate balance of power, but is also concurrent with developments in Chinese domestic politics, namely the transition from Mao’s revolutionary worldview to the post-Mao “peaceful development” platform, which includes creating a stable Chinese periphery to allow for China’s rise as a great power. The PRC’s pursuit of “peaceful development”, however, has caused Beijing no shortage of angst when it comes to the DPRK. China’s economic rise has spurred concepts such as the “Chinese dream” of building up a solid middle class-based society. Even though preventing significant political change in North Korea outside of Beijing’s control is essential for security along the Chinese border, in order for China to raise its standing in the international community, it cannot afford to be seen as supporting a reckless DPRK.1)신종호 (Shin, Jong Ho). 2016. “시진핑 시기 중국의 대외 전략 변화와 한반도 정책에 대한 영향 [Changes to China’s Overseas Strategy in the Xi Jinping Era and its Influence on it Korean Peninsula Policy]”, International Journal of Korean Unification Studies.

Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un meeting in Pyongyang, June 2019. | Source CCTV

Today, even as the United States remains the dominant security broker in East Asia, the rise of China is causing shifts in the US’s thinking regarding East Asian security, particularly given the PRC’s ability to project power in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula. This has led to a situation whereby China’s policies toward North Korea are increasingly influenced by the specter of strategic relations with the US.2)이기현 (Lee, Gi Hyeon). 2013. “북한의 3차 핵실험과 중국의 대북정책 변화 가능성 [North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test and the Possibility of Changes in China’s North Korea Policy]” KINU Online Series 13-06. More specifically, this means North Korea’s value to the PRC could change depending on the extent to which it affects China’s security hedging against the United States. Nevertheless, the PRC appears hard-pressed to undertake any notable shifts in its policies toward Pyongyang. As Andrew Scobell and Mark Cozad have noted, in spite of indications that the Chinese government undertook a major assessment of its North Korea policy around the time of the 2002-2003 North Korean nuclear debacle, Beijing’s policies toward the DPRK remain fundamentally unaltered. Indeed, to this day North Korea remains a strategic asset for China in providing a buffer zone against South Korea and the thousands of US troops it hosts. 

The continuity in Beijing’s North Korea policy, along with the intersection between China’s interests in maintaining peripheral stability and the pursuit of great power status has caused serious differences between China and the US over how to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Although China would in principle like the DPRK to denuclearize, Beijing is not willing to pursue this goal to the extent of risking instability in North Korea. Knowing that it can depend on an enduring partnership with Beijing, Pyongyang has sought to utilize the current Sino-American rivalry to its advantage in its dealings with Washington. During the various meetings between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping throughout the 2018-2019 period of summit diplomacy, North Korea tried not only to strengthen its strategic communication with China, but also attempted to obtain leverage against Washington in the context of the China-US strategic competition. The DPRK’s attempts to exploit contentious points in Sino-American relations, however, have met with limited results. 

Indeed, one prominent retired Chinese general and current think tank scholar, Wang Haiyun penned an editorial in 2016 in which he lampooned the US’s policy of military deterrence against the DPRK, and lamented the difficulty of working with the United States in contingency planning for managing potential crises on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, Wang warned that in the event of war, China would not “sacrifice its own national interests for a [North Korean] regime that does not take advice.” Strategic contention with the United States notwithstanding, Beijing wants to create an atmosphere of cooperation with the US so as to mitigate the possibility of conflict with Washington, particularly in the Northeast Asia sub-region. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s place as a priority issue in the Sino-American relationship can hardly be taken for granted, a fact that exposes the limitations of North Korea’s ability to utilize its friendship with Beijing as a bargaining chip in dealings with Washington.  

Kim Jong Il meets with Dai Bingguo (third from the left), a special envoy to Hu Jintao, autumn 2009 | Source: CCTV

Scaling down the rungs | In fact, Korean security has taken a back seat to other issues in Sino-American ties in recent years. During the first Trump-Xi summit in 2017, the American leader blamed China for not doing enough to resolve the North Korean crisis. The second summit in 2018, however focused overwhelmingly on commerce in light of the Sino-American trade war. Likewise, at the G20 Summit in Osaka in June 2019, the China-US economic relationship was once again front-and-center in talks between the two leaders, with North Korea meriting little more than a sideline chat. Needless to say, so far this year the major themes in China-US ties have been largely related to trade and the global health crisis

The Korean security crisis’s downgrading on the list of priority issues in Sino-American relations however will not necessarily make the situation between China and the United States vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula more amenable. On the contrary, a lack of bilateral engagement between China and the US over the Korean security quandary could later make Sino-American cooperation over Korea more complicated, as prior understandings over what will happen in the event of a seventh North Korean nuclear test – or something else equally undesirable – have yet to be hammered out between Beijing and Washington. Recent reports and speculation over Kim Jong-un’s health, regardless of their veracity, are among other things a sobering reminder of the importance of solid Sino-US policy coordination over the DPRK.

Strategic ties on a sub-regional tightrope | In the context of its North Korea policy, Beijing must balance between preserving the status quo on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and maintaining strategic stability with Pyongyang’s arch rival, Washington. For now, the PRC has calculated that the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula is the lesser evil compared with the possibilities of upheaval on its northeastern border or the unification of the peninsula under a pro-US government. The PRC nevertheless faces the task of ensuring that its friendship with North Korea doesn’t disrupt the strategic equilibrium between China and the United States, causing a unique geopolitical quandary in an age when most legacies of divided countries supported by two rival great powers have been confined to the dustbin of history.

For North Korea, meanwhile, the unmistakable message is that even though the United States has shown an unprecedented willingness to negotiate directly with the DPRK under President Trump, Pyongyang’s solid relationship with Beijing, while beneficial in terms of direct DPRK-US negotiations, is of limited use insofar as the overall nature of Sino-American relations are concerned. The DPRK may be an asset as far as buffering Chinese territory from a pro-US South Korea is concerned, but Korean security is, in and of itself, not always at the forefront of Sino-US relations. North Korean attempts to sidle up to the PRC may provide some diplomatic support in dealings with the US, yet the nature of great power relations means that China will hardly be willing to unconditionally support the DPRK in a way that places inordinate strain on Beijing’s ties with Washington.

1 신종호 (Shin, Jong Ho). 2016. “시진핑 시기 중국의 대외 전략 변화와 한반도 정책에 대한 영향 [Changes to China’s Overseas Strategy in the Xi Jinping Era and its Influence on it Korean Peninsula Policy]”, International Journal of Korean Unification Studies.
2 이기현 (Lee, Gi Hyeon). 2013. “북한의 3차 핵실험과 중국의 대북정책 변화 가능성 [North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test and the Possibility of Changes in China’s North Korea Policy]” KINU Online Series 13-06.

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