N. Korea's nuclear test and policy failure
While Washington and Beijing can rightfully condemn and punish Pyongyang for its recalcitrant behavior, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that North Korea’s third nuclear test reveals the deep rift between the United States and China and their inability to cooperate in promoting peace and stability in East Asia. It is high time that the two powers did some serious soul-searching about the messy situation in Northeast Asia.
One had hoped that the United States and China would work together to prod and push North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, but one has been disappointed time and again. Both powers oppose North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship, but America’s “sticks only” and China’s “lips and teeth” policies toward North Korea have failed miserably. At the core is the difficulty for the United States and China to establish a trust-based relationship to deal with common challenges. In fact, the United States and China have stepped in a vicious circle in East Asian security. The deeper the distrust between the two powers, the more valuable North Korea is to China.
China has its own national interests such as maintaining good relations with traditional friends and keeping a peaceful regional environment for domestic growth. However, offering continuous support for a repressive regime and sometimes tacitly condoning its reckless behavior are not commensurate with China’s aspiration to be a responsible great power.
With China acting like an indulgent parent, North Korea seems emboldened to challenge the international community repeatedly. China mistakenly holds the hope that North Korea will open up under Kim Jong-un. Limited changes Kim introduced have proved to be superficial and he seems determined to carry on the “seongun’’ (military first) policy, brushing off China’s warnings and disregarding China’s interests. The third nuclear test is a wake-up call. China must change its North Korea policy and get serious. Significantly cutting aid to North Korea could be the initial step in the right direction.
North Korea is an unruly member of the international community and an isolated dictatorship ruled by the Kim family. To be friend with such a regime deeply hurts China’s international image. Nevertheless, North Korea is a traditional ally, with enduring, albeit diminishing strategic values to China today. China does not want to side with North Korea all the time or support North Korea’s many repulsive policies, yet it cannot simply let North Korea fail and collapse given the complex security situation in East Asia.
With little trust between Beijing and Washington, China is unlikely to put too much pressure on North Korea. Failure to support North Korea, which will lead to its eventual collapse, could bring far worse consequences for China than most outside observers realize. Ironically, China’s policy of maintaining regional security is partially dependent on a strong China-North Korea relationship. A unified, nuclear-capable, and pro-America Korea, with U.S. and Korean troops just across the Yalu River, will not be in the best interests of China. Millions of North Korean refugees following North Korea’s sudden breakdown will pose tremendous economic, social, political, and humanitarian challenges for China. Such Chinese concerns must be addressed before Beijing will be committed to denuclearizing North Korea.
It may be wishful thinking that Kim Jong-un will initiate Chinese-style reforms to North Korea. Chinese scholars have debated over the best strategies to deal with North Korea. Many argue that North Korea is a destabilizing force and damages China’s national interests. The voice of ditching North Korea is getting louder inside China. Then why does China seem half-hearted in punishing North Korea? The key problem here is the lack of trust between the United States and China.
America’s Asia policy has been dubbed “pivot to Asia” in the past couple of years. The United States has beefed up relations with traditional allies in the region such as Japan and South Korea, reached out to new friends such as Vietnam and Burma, and deployed additional troops in Australia. Despite the US government’s repeated denial that its “strategic rebalancing” is aimed at encircling China, such suspicions run deep in Beijing and other capitals in the region. The reason is simple: the “pivot to Asia” policy has a fatal flaw ― while warming up relations with China’s neighbors, the United States has not done much to strengthen relations with China simultaneously. As a result, no matter how the United States justifies it, the “pivot to Asia” policy smacks of a new type of “encirclement” of China in the eyes of many Chinese and foreign observers and has been damaging to East Asian security.
With tensions high between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the last thing East Asian countries want is a U.S. policy that does not help deescalate conflicts. The official American position that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the disputed islands is very unfortunate and unhelpful, which only generates further distrust between China and the United States.
North Korea may well have taken advantage of the division between China and the United States in its repeated provocations. North Korea’s recent nuclear test offers a rare opportunity for China and the United States to reflect upon their strategies and adjust their policies to promote bilateral cooperation. A new approach must begin with the recognition that America’s and China’s current policies toward each other and toward North Korea have failed.
As President Obama’s new foreign policy team takes office, the United States must redefine the “pivot to Asia” strategy and pay more attention to improving relations with China. Without a strong and cooperative relationship with China, America’s Asia policy will not succeed. Sanctions not matched by tangible rewards for changed behavior will not work for North Korea. On the other hand, China’s new leadership, less constrained by the historical baggage, must make up its mind now and draw the red line for North Korea.
It may be too late to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear state, but the United States and China can and should work together to manage the North Korea challenge in order to promote lasting stability in East Asia and to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology.
Zhiqun Zhu is professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.