How China and America Can Make a Serious North Korea Deal

President Barack Obama offers a toast to President Xi Jinping of China during a State Banquet at the Great Hall of People in Beijing. Flickr/The White House

Yes, China has influence. But how do we meet in the middle?

During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump stated that “China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.” The Washington Post wondered if this means that Trump is calling for China to invade North Korea. While Trump’s suggestion for how to deal with North Korea is not more likely to be adopted than a few of his other ideas, the challenge of North Korea is real enough. In effect, there is a strong case to be made that the greatest threat to U.S. security that the new president will have to confront is that of North Korea. It may well, in the near future, possess intercontinental missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The development of these weapons—whose maximum range may be up to six thousand miles, and thus may be capable of targeting Los Angeles—is being pursued by a country whose leader, Kim Jong-un, is notoriously bellicose and erratic.

The United States and its allies have not found a way to rein in North Korea’s accelerating nuclear program that is much more promising than Trump’s peculiar suggestion. Instead, we get political theater. Each news item about more advancements of the North Korean program is followed by statements from U.S. officials that call on Pyongyang to behave better and on the UN to pass resolutions, with requests that China help rein in Pyongyang. These hollow gestures supposedly demonstrate that our leaders did not ignore the news and are doing something, but have no discernible effect. Thus, we read that the Security Council condemned the latest missile launches as a “grave violation” of North Korea’s international obligations, which showed “flagrant disregard” for previous Council resolutions and statements and called for other member countries to “redouble their efforts.” But the United Nations left open the question of how to get tougher. David Ignatius observes that “the U.N. sanctions seem to have had no effect in curbing these provocative actions.” Other reports indicate that North Korea views efforts to tighten sanctions as “laughable” and that “it has proven adept at skirting them, thanks largely to China, its ally and biggest trading partner, which has enforced them only laxly.”

China is the only power that has the capacity to force North Korea to change course. It is North Korea’s only ally, as well as its biggest trading partner, and its largest supplier of food, weapons and energy. Hence, a common response to news that North Korea is moving more quickly than expected toward developing long-range missiles and miniaturized nuclear warheads is to “urge” China, or otherwise try to shame China into acting. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said, “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it.”

Governments can be shamed and are willing to make some concessions to shore up their reputations and soft power. However, there are severe limits on the extent to which one can motivate governments, in particular authoritarian regimes and rising powers such as China, to absorb the kinds of costs and challenges involved in this case, solely on the basis of Western exhortations. The costs to China if it were to move to rein in North Korea are considerable. China views living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, explained that the “Chinese leadership is confident that North Korea will not turn its weapons on China, and that China can control its neighbor by providing enough oil to keep its economy afloat. The alternative is a strategic nightmare for Beijing: a collapsed North Korean regime, millions of refugees piling into China and a unified Korean Peninsula under an American defense treaty.”      

Instead, China needs to be offered a deal based on differential salience—an idea that requires some elaboration. Nations tend to differ in the weight they accord to various national interests. This makes a deal possible when Nation A makes concessions in matters that matter little to it but that matter a great deal to Nation B, in exchange for concessions on matters that rank low in Nation B’s priorities, but that matter a great deal to Nation A.

How can the salience-based bargaining method be applied to Sino-U.S. relations? First, the United States needs to rank its interests (not necessarily publicly). As I see it, stopping additional development of the North Korean missile and nuclear program—or, better yet, rolling it back—is very high on this list for obvious reasons. The question then is: what interest is salient enough for China to assume the high costs of pressuring North Korea to cap or cut back its program? And can the United States accommodate these interests at a low cost to itself? The best approach is to ask China what it would take to ensure its cooperation. (Its initial response may well be treated as an opening bid in a negotiation, and not the final offer.) However, for the sake of this exercise, let me try to figure out what China might seek and what the United States could quite readily afford to grant.

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