China has developed a double policy in relation to North Korea. Its primary interest was and remains to maintain North Korea as a strategic buffer against the extension of American commercial, diplomatic and military influence into North Korea. For this reason, it has provided vital aid and diplomatic support to North Korea’s regime. With the establishment of the Six Parties Talks (SPT) – involving the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea – since 2003 and the development of UN sanctions to pressure the North to denuclearise and to abandon its plan to rise as a nuclear weapon state, China adopted a secondary role – as an intermediary to resolve the dispute over North Korean nuclear and missile activities. North Korea has declared often that it will not abandon its nuclear and missile program because it sees it as a valuable bargaining chip.
Although China supports UN sanctions on North Korea, it is debatable whether it actually implements them rigorously for fear of bringing down the Kim dynasty.
To be credible as an interlocutor, it has incrementally joined the UN sanctions and declared that North Korean missile and nuclear tests were unacceptable behavior. In the recently held Obama-Xi Jingpin summit in California (6–7 June 2013), both sides agreed that North Korea must denuclearise and that neither would accept it as a nuclear armed state. Obama declared that the United States would take steps to defend itself against North Korean threats and that the policy of sanctions and pressures would continue. The U.S. government spokesperson noted that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program would have “profound implications in the rest of Northeast Asia,” which neither China nor the United States would like to see.8
In this summit, the common goal was recorded but there is no time line to fulfill it and the red line concerns the rise of Pyongyang as a “nuclear armed state” but its meaning is unclear because in recent years, North Korea has repeatedly made public declarations that it no longer accepts the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but is willing to talk and negotiate about its program, which it says it will maintain until there is a satisfactory political settlement in its favour. Although China supports UN sanctions on North Korea, it is debatable whether it actually implements them rigorously for fear of bringing down the Kim dynasty.
Washington too has a double policy, but it is aimed at both Pyongyang and Beijing. North Korea is America’s new frontier, and the endgame is to extend America’s commercial, diplomatic and military influence into the North. If Pyongyang denuclearises and makes a strategic deal with the United States, Japan and South Korea, that will bring American influence to the banks of the Yalu – the reason the Korean War was fought by China. If Pyongyang fails to denuclearise, the U.S. government will continue to expand its military activities in the region and in relation to Japan and South Korea and this will circumscribe the ability of the PLA generals and the North Korean generals to expand their manoeuvrability even as their military capabilities grow. Here, time is on Washington’s side and it is using it to establish the red lines towards both North Korea and China.
The complex process of negotiating a South China Sea protocol in a multilateral forum opens up a new diplomatic and political front for China…
With Pyongyang, the red line is that eventually it must denuclearise. With Beijing, the red line is aimed at the PLA generals who have pushed for a forcible assertion of China’s military influence in the South China Sea and who, in retrospect, apparently gave wrong inputs to their political leaders in 2011–2012 that the U.S. and China’s neighbours were likely to accept the Chinese demand to deal with the contentious issues bilaterally and in a peaceful manner, which was a double message: that China could continue to expand its maritime activities and to assert its territorial claims while others had to act with restraint. Recently, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet laid down two new markers in a visit to Malaysia: (1) “We will oppose the change of status quo by force by anyone,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the Pacific Command, noted and (2) “We need to retain the status quo until we get a code of conduct or a solution by party nations” [which include Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan]. Locklear noted that the code of conduct would enable the military “to understand the boundaries of what they can do in the best interest for a peaceful solution.”9
This approach is a diplomatic victory for Southeast Asian nations, which have asked for a multilateral approach, and a setback for Beijing, which has insisted on a bilateral approach. The complex process of negotiating a South China Sea protocol in a multilateral forum opens up a new diplomatic and political front for China’s political leaders and diplomatic experts while at the same time drawing a red line around the PLA generals and the advocates of an aggressive stance in the region. That is, the generals will have to cool their heels until the boundary (boundaries) of what they can do are established by interstate agreements. This is not a happy outcome for generals who prefer to work around ambiguity about the boundary line(s).
Another sign that Beijing’s diplomatic influence has peaked is revealed by the revival of North Korea-South Korea talks to reopen the Kaesong industrial zone (a major economic zone of North-South cooperation involving thousands of North and South Korean workers and hundreds of factories) and to revive the Kumgang mountain resort (a valuable tourist resort and source of foreign exchange). As well, the two seek to discuss humanitarian issues in the truce village at the DMZ line. Following months of threats and bickering, Pyongyang surprised the South Koreans with an offer of broad-based talks without preconditions and the South quickly accepted and met.10 The development of the bilateral channel of discourse between two sides of the Korean nation and a common history before 1945 are an interesting development in the sense that talking is better than fighting and, in this case, bilateral talks reduce the dependence on China as an intermediary.
China’s manoeuvrability is reduced as the U.S. establishes the red lines concerning proper conduct by North Korea on the nuclear and missile question and by China in the South China Sea.
In this fast moving scene, two Chinese dilemmas are emerging. (1) It is difficult for Beijing to navigate the pebbles in a bid to cross the big river of US-PRC-North Korea relations. With an established pattern of controlled escalation, Washington has the room to manoeuver in the region militarily, with its allies in the region, and with China. On the other hand China’s manoeuvrability is reduced as the U.S. establishes the red lines concerning proper conduct by North Korea on the nuclear and missile question and by China in the South China Sea. (2) At the same time, ways must be found by Beijing’s practitioners to negotiate the pebbles to cross the big river of internal bureaucratic politics. China’s internal policy triangle involves Xi Jingpin, the PLA and the Foreign Office.
From time to time, incidents related to China reveal the existence of provocative actions by semi-independent policy silos without apparent centralised policy coordination. China’s neighbours are learning that PLA’s actions may not be within the knowledge of China’s diplomats and even the top leaders and one must push back to ensure party control and diplomatic restraint by the Chinese authorities. This means that ways must be found to strengthen the hands of the Chinese diplomats and to establish red lines in the conduct of the PLA generals who do not answer to the Foreign Office or even their Ministry of Defence and remain, as in Mao’s days, and the days of the Long March, the arm of the Party.
Confucius advised the emperor to sit down and to face the South and seek harmony. It remains to be seen if the new emperor of China, Xi Jingpin, can face the North and secure the Korean peninsula and then face the South to secure the South China Sea and the Southeast Asian world. Not only does China have a new emperor in the form of Xi Jingpin, there is also a new strategic game in China’s north and south that will continue to be played out beyond the summitry with world leaders.
Excerpt from the article: North Korea-China-U.S.: The Dynamics of a Strategic Triangle
Notes and References
8. US Department of Defence. “Obama, Xi Agree North Korea Must Denuclearize.” 10 June 2013. <www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/drpk/2013/drpk-130609-afps01.htm?-in>.
9. US Department of Defence. “US Commander Issues Stern Warning on South China Sea Disputes.” 9 June 2013. <www.globalsecurity.org/mil/library/news/2013/06/mil-13606-voa01.html?_m>.
10.Steve Herman. “South Korea Accepts North’s Surprise Offer of Talks.” US Department of Defence. 9 June 2013. <www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/rok/2013/rok-130606-voa01.htm_m+3>.