China’s next stepBEIJING — I spent the week of March 6 in Beijing as the guest of the Carnegie Tsinghua Center Distinguished Visitors Program. The Director of the Center, Paul Haenle, is a leading China expert and a veteran of the George W. Bush National Security Council Staff with repeated experiences negotiating with North Korea. Together we met with leaders in business, the Communist Party, the business community, the government and the diplomatic corps.
One of the major topics of discussion was the Korean peninsula. Our meetings coincided with the National Peoples’ Congress and the National Peoples’ Consultative Committee, an intense period of internal politics and debate in China in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress this fall. The impressions I took away (which are mine alone) may interest readers who are anxious to know what might happen next in China’s relations with both North and South Korea.
The leading topic raised by Chinese interlocutors (aside from U.S. politics and the Trump administration) was the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (Thaad). The first deployment of Thaad assets to the Republic of Korea occurred while I was in Beijing and intensified the discussions. Chinese official media blame Seoul for the Thaad deployment rather than the United States. In part this reflects emotional debates in Chinese social media about South Korea’s “betrayal” after years of Chinese “generosity” toward South Korean industries.
Official Chinese media warn that Korean companies will pay a price in the Chinese market, though my interlocutors were quick to deny that the Chinese government would play any role in retaliating against Korean interests. In very few discussions were there any recognition of the fact that Thaad was a defensive deployment in response to heightened North Korean threats from missile and nuclear programs, not to mention biological weaponry put on display with the use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia.
Importantly, it seemed that Beijing does not actually expect the United States or the Republic of Korea to reverse the Thaad deployment.
Some in Beijing confessed that the hard-line opposition to Thaad by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department created a trap from which the Chinese leadership could not escape, leaving only the course of collision with Korea. Those who follow the Korean peninsula regret that China’s hard-line position will thaw relations with Seoul that are contrary to Chinese interests vis-à-vis North Korea, Japan and the U.S. Some outside of the government thought that the Chinese leadership had been unrealistically optimistic about the potential to harden opposition to Thaad in the Korean progressive camp.
While the official Chinese line remains a strong opposition to Thaad and there is some popular dissatisfaction with Korea, it was evident in my meetings that there is much deeper anger at Pyongyang. There was also some appreciation that retaliation against Korean companies will fuel the voices in Washington who think the Trump administration should target Chinese companies involved in activities with North Korea or the South China Sea that negatively affect U.S. security interests. If I had to guess, I would anticipate that Beijing will tolerate some limited populist boycotts of Korean companies, but will avoid obvious examples of government retaliation against Korean firms and will seek a quick recovery of relations with Seoul after the May election.
With respect to North Korea itself, I found universal anger and frustration at Kim Jong-un. That wasn’t surprising. There was also a broad view that Beijing has already done enough by stopping coal imports from the North to China. The argument among officials and many experts is that the ball is now back in the U.S. court to do something on the Korean peninsula. There were several ideas I heard about what exactly the Trump administration should do. Few expected a reversal of the Thaad decision, but in some corners there was a view that the United States should reduce U.S.-ROK joint military exercises to “calm down” Pyongyang.
I explained as clearly as I could that such a quid pro quo would not be accepted in Washington and that U.S.-ROK exercises are not intended as political gestures that can be traded away, but are instead fundamentally about deterrence and readiness. Given North Korea’s escalating military threat and provocations, those deterrence efforts will have to continue and even increase. I think key Chinese policy actors on the North Korean problem recognize that this is not a dynamic China can control.
Overall, it seemed clear that Beijing is once again at a loss for what to do about the North Korean problem. During the six-party talks the debates in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo were most obvious because we have open societies and free media. At the time, though, I sensed that the political debates about North Korea behind the scenes in Beijing were probably the most intense of all. It goes without saying that China will have an indispensable role in ensuring that there is a peaceful resolution of the nuclear problem and someday unification itself. In many respects Chinese cooperation with both the U.S. and Korea on the North Korean issue has increased in the past decade, but over the same period the North Korean threat itself has increased at a much faster rate than U.S. or Korean cooperation with China.
Beijing does not like any of its options vis-à-vis North Korea, but the world cannot afford for China to remain complacent. A consistent Korean stance — as was demonstrated with respect to Thaad deployment — has made Beijing’s choices on North Korea clearer, even if the short-term impact is tension in Sino-Korean relations.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.