[Viewpoint] Things we can ask Beijing to doIt now goes without saying that China is the key to managing an increasingly armed and provocative North Korea. China provides well over half of the North’s food and fuel (the exact amount is not officially known) and trades more than 2 trillion won ($2 billion) a year with the North at a time when the rest of the world is retreating from any commercial relationship with Pyongyang.
And yet China is proving frustratingly impervious to American, South Korean and Japanese demands to do more to curb the dangerous behavior of its old Cold War ally. It is time for a clear-headed assessment of what we can expect from China and a strategy aimed at achieving specific outcomes in Beijing’s relations with the North.
We know that China will put pressure on North Korea in the right circumstances. In the first nuclear crisis in 1994 Beijing conveyed to Pyongyang that it would not veto a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea. This probably played a role in Kim Il Sung’s decision to retreat from his original plans for the Yongbyon reactor (temporarily as it turned out) and enter into the Agreed Framework.
We also know that in 2003 China temporarily cut off fuel lines to the North in order to push Pyongyang to join the U.S.-China-DPRK trilateral meetings that were the prelude for the six-party talks. China also put pressure on Pyongyang by supporting UN Security Resolutions 1619 and 1874 after the North’s nuclear tests.
So China does put pressure on the North; either in an effort to forestall U.S. military action (in 1994 China’s decision followed evidence of U.S. military preparations to enforce sanctions and in 2003 China saw the Americans “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” in Iraq) or to punish the North for nuclear tests. China has never punished the North for military action directed against the South; and therein lies one major problem, but we know that it is possible to create incentives for China to use pressure in the right circumstances.
On the other hand, it has become clear that China is unwilling to put the kind of pressure on Pyongyang that would be necessary to compel verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. For China a nuclear-armed North Korea appears less of a threat than the risk of regime collapse, massive refugee flows and the emergence of a unified democratic Korea aligned with democracies.
With a difficult leadership transition coming for China in 2012 and an unmerited degree of hubris among the Chinese elite about China’s ability to dictate the agenda in Northeast Asia, we may find the next few years quite frustrating with respect to nuclear diplomacy.
Therefore, what we must do is publicly and privately set a high bar of expectations on Beijing, but prepare our own defensive measures without assuming that China will solve our security problems for us. In that sense, the response from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to Beijing’s call for an emergency session of the six-party talks was perfect. All three democratic governments rejected the proposal as - in the words of one U.S. official - a “PR gimmick.”
The U.S.-ROK-Japan foreign ministerial meeting scheduled for tomorrow reinforces the message to Beijing that its lame response to North Korea’s nuclear escalation and attacks on South Korea will only weaken Chinese strategic influence in Northeast Asia. This should be accompanied on the defense side with a sustained campaign of U.S.-ROK, U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK-Japan enhanced military cooperation to deter the North from further provocations.
There is no escaping one dilemma in this approach, and that is that tension with China will likely increase. Beijing has already criticized U.S.-ROK exercises in the Yellow Sea more than it ever publicly criticized the North’s unprovoked attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. Chinese commentators are warning of a U.S. “encirclement” strategy. Managers of U.S.-China and ROK-China relations will be uncomfortable with this dynamic - but the whole point is that if Beijing is comfortable with the status quo on the peninsula, it will not act.
The alternative would be to continue with business as usual, which would weaken dissuasion and deterrence toward North Korea and ultimately do more harm to relations with China in the long term.
And what concrete steps should we expect from China? At a minimum, we should press Beijing to explain to Pyongyang that attacks against the South will lead to material consequences in bilateral relations with China. In other words, Beijing has a major responsibility to help dissuade the North from future military attacks.
By embracing Kim Jong-il so soon after the Cheonan attack, China inadvertently gave a green light for the Yeonpyeong bombardment. Does anyone think Kim Jong-il would have ordered the attack on Yeonpyeong if China had cut off food and fuel for a month after the Cheonan attack?
In addition, China must move from its minimalist compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and take a significantly more active role in interdicting missile and nuclear-related traffic in its air space and through dummy North Korean companies in China.
The WikiLeaks cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing revealed how frustrated U.S. officials are in their attempts to convince China to stop North Korea proliferation activity. Perhaps such public attention to inadequacies in China’s implementation of UN Security Council resolutions should be leveraged to press for more cooperation from Beijing.
These are two concrete steps China could take to demonstrate that it understands how much damage North Korea’s military attacks and proliferation activities are doing to China’s own strategic relations with the United States, Korea and Japan.
These measures do not risk regime collapse and would be much more useful than Beijing’s current theatrical and meaningless attempts to restart the six-party talks. We can tell Beijing that there may be a time for dialogue with Pyongyang in the future, but now is the time for deterring further North Korean escalation and China must play its role.
*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
by Michael J. Green