As the crisis in Syria unfolds, a less noticed problem has been the widening gap between China and the United States about how to handle another “rogue regime”—North Korea. After signs of growing cooperation with the U.S. earlier this year, China has reverted to a heavy emphasis on dialogue as a solution to the DPRK nuclear issue. The United States should redouble its efforts to ensure that Beijing continues to adequately pressure Pyongyang.
Following North Korea’s February nuclear test, some observers saw China changing course on the DPRK. Evidence included aggressive implementation of UN Security Council sanctions and a firmer approach in Beijing’s bilateral dealings with Pyongyang. Many were also heartened by Xi Jinping’s apparent suggestions at the Sunnylands summit in June that China would use its leverage to promote a shift in North Korea’s behavior.
However, some analysts have cautioned against excessive claims about a change in China’s position. For instance, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt warned that Beijing’s continued emphasis on stability on the Korean Peninsula, versus nonproliferation, would mean that it may be “many more years before we might see China’s much anticipated policy shift.”
Indeed, recent evidence from Beijing supports these more cautious arguments. Last week, the PLA’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff met with a visiting delegation from the ROK, reportedly emphasizing China’s pursuit of a solution through “dialogue, negotiations, and consultations.” The Chinese and DPRK nuclear envoys also recently met in Pyongyang, and “exchanged views on the resumption of the six-party talks.”
During my own recent discussions with civilian and military analysts in Beijing, Chinese interlocutors emphasized several similar points:
● The six-party talks should be resumed in the near future. The time is right, some analysts argued, because of a recent abatement of tensions, and because of signs that North Korea may prize economic over nuclear development.
● China expects that the United States will support a renewal of the six-party talks—indeed, this seems to be a condition for the forging of a “new type of great power relationship” between the two countries. As one senior Chinese diplomat I spoke with in Beijing put it, “If the United States refused to engage in dialogue, the PRC would be very suspicious of U.S. intentions.”
● The Chinese military is not willing to enter into discussions with the United States about how to respond to a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. One high-ranking PLA officer said that, although the idea of such coordination is “reasonable,” talks would be an unnecessary provocation and likely lead the situation to become more “complex.”
If these trends continue, there is likely to be a widening gap between China and the United States, which tends to prefer a stronger emphasis on sanctions and has been highly skeptical of the possible effectiveness of further six-party talks.