Elephants in the Room

Could North Korea Help Bring the United States and China Closer Together?

The mutual challenge of managing Pyongyang could offer Washington and Beijing the chance to get along.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, second from left, attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, second from left, attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea is Asia’s most immediate security threat, but confrontation between China and the United States remains the main long-term risk to regional prosperity and stability. Even as prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea brighten, dark clouds hover over China-U.S. relations.

In a meeting overlooking Beijing’s Forbidden City, I joined Chinese and U.S. scholars and practitioners last month to reassess growing strategic competition and a looming trade war. Participants on both sides voiced concern that the foundation of the China-U.S. relationship is more fragile than any time since the normalization of relations in 1979.

Chinese analysts argue that the United States refuses to accommodate China’s rise, while U.S. observers see China pursuing predatory economic policies and creeping acts of sovereignty. Given sharply different perceptions of each other and the rules for maintaining order, how will China and the United States manage strategic competition in the coming years, under U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping?

If experts agree on anything, it is that the problems in U.S.-China relations are varied, deepening, and resistant to easy solutions. While a trade war may be averted, tariffs and investment restrictions are unlikely to compel fundamental changes within China’s system of state capitalism. Seventeen years after accession to the World Trade Organization, China is the most closed of all G-20 states and not one of the market economies the World Trade Organization was set up to regulate. The Chinese see pressure as trying to force change on their system and ideology, and many appear to want to do the minimum to placate Washington rather than widen market access. China also knows that it has leverage — it holds 20 percent of U.S. foreign debt and could threaten not to absorb an additional $70 billion per year as economic frictions intensify. 

Geopolitical flashpoints are as intractable as economic ones. Chinese assail the nonbinding Taiwan Travel Act, which “encourages visits between officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels,” as threatening Beijing’s core interests and the longstanding “One China” policy. Disputes in the South and East China Seas simmer but could flare up quickly. China is determined to assert historical claims that in some cases exceed rights under international law. For instance, in a deliberate attempt to intimidate foreign navies to abide by Chinese policies, the Chinese Navy in April confronted three Australian ships sailing to Vietnam.

With both trade and geopolitical hotspots eroding bilateral relations, Chinese and U.S. interlocutors are asking similar questions of each other. From Beijing’s perspective, will the United States impede China’s path to achieving a great rejuvenation by 2049? From Washington’s vantage point, is China determined to revise the liberal postwar order?

None of these challenges is about to disappear. But one issue could help bring the United States and China together. The security litmus test for China-U.S. relations is the question of how to manage North Korea. At least in this instance, there is a chance to transform a significant defense challenge into a peaceful diplomatic process.

Just as Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have been careful to work together on a pressure-and-engagement strategy, so too must Xi stick to the same strategic course, even as summits create a buoyant atmosphere. China needs to remain skeptically engaged, rather than succumb to the temptation to relieve pressure on Pyongyang just for beginning talks and making bold statements. The United States needs to stay outcome-focused, seeking steps toward complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Some in China are supremely confident that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will give up his nuclear weapons. But before we leap to the conclusion that this time will be different, experience should temper expectations. Major-power détente in 1972 catalyzed the first high-level North-South talks since the Korean Armistice Agreement, but they soon foundered. Likewise, the end of the Cold War prompted North Korea to sign historic agreements in 1991 and 1992, just before the first nuclear crisis gripped the Korean Peninsula.

Chinese might remember how North Korea has changed its view of Beijing with little notice. For example, three years after praising China’s first nuclear test and six years after signing a treaty of alliance, former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung decried China’s big-power chauvinism and expressed fear of Han nationalism. Similarly, shortly after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping took Kim Il Sung to Sichuan in 1982 to learn about peaceful Chinese reforms, the Kim family attempted to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in Myanmar.

If China has good reason not to trust North Korea, the United States and South Korea have ample evidence to insist on actions and not mere words. These three and other countries are testing Kim’s intentions — a lengthy but embryonic examination.

Kim’s recent rhetoric suggests he wants successful first summits with Presidents Moon and Trump. By acceding to essential preconditions and dropping unacceptable demands — announcing a freeze on nuclear weapons testing and giving up the idea that denuclearization would require the removal of all U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula — Kim is outlining the script of probable outcomes for these initial top-level encounters. Moon and Kim may announce a peace process, and Trump and Kim may codify a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests as the first step toward denuclearization.

But implementation has always been the hard part of dealing with North Korea. Even a successful process will take time. Many questions will remain after the leaders climb down from the summit, including: the precise scope of denuclearization, how to preserve North Korea’s entitlement to civil nuclear power (including uranium enrichment), the timetable for when specific actions must be taken, the verification means for stopping the production of fissile material, how to safeguard against cheating (such as hiding warheads and mobile missiles), what to do about space launches, and what quid pro quos to offer North Korea in exchange for these steps.

The North Korean challenge, in other words, will get harder, not easier, after a pair of summit meetings with Kim. Not only must Seoul and Washington remain committed to pressure and engagement, but so too must Beijing. There is a distinct opportunity for dealing with North Korea, but only if pressure can be maintained all the way through the process of talks.

With ominous clouds accumulating over the U.S.-China relationship, the mutual challenge of managing the North Korea problem offers a rare ray of sunshine. No single issue can prevent strategic competition between China and the United States. But pragmatic cooperation on such a vital and longstanding security challenge as the North Korea problem would go a long way to adding ballast to the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.

Patrick M. Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

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