Warning: Is China Pivoting Back to North Korea?

The West needs Beijing's help in coercing Pyongyang.

Third is China’s continuing prioritization of Korean Peninsula stability over nonproliferation. Like many U.S. observers, Beijing is well aware that the repeating cycle of sanctions and inducements has done little to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing nuclear weapons and capable delivery systems. Yet for China, this outcome is likely preferable to the more dire possibility of a regime collapse caused by a significant ratcheting up of external pressure. That could lead not only to a refugee crisis in China’s northeast, but also remove a strategically useful buffer state, at a time when Beijing is focused on economic reform and is facing myriad other domestic and foreign problems. Like his predecessors, Xi Jinping has accepted a bad situation in order to avoid provoking an even worse one.

For the United States, this implies that expectations for China to fundamentally shift course to a more sustained, containment-like approach to North Korea are unlikely to be achieved. This is particularly relevant in an election year in which several candidates have suggested that Beijing could be convinced to significantly elevate its pressure on Pyongyang. Such an outcome is not impossible, but would require Chinese views on the utility of sanctions to change, the Chinese domestic debate on North Korea to be resolved in favor of those who support a tougher approach, and Beijing to alter its prioritization of interests from stability to nonproliferation. Unfortunately, none of those conditions are likely to be met in the short-to-medium term.

If there is anything new or remarkable about China’s response to the latest nuclear test, it is Beijing’s apparent attempt to link support for sanctions to U.S. and South Korean decision making about a potential American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the South. Allegations of such attempts prompted Daniel Russel, a senior U.S. diplomat on Asia, to declare that there is “no connection” between the two issues. Whatever the reality of the situation, any efforts by Beijing to extract concessions from the U.S. or its allies on extraneous issues could set a negative precedent for cooperation in future negotiations. If the next president cannot hope for a basic shift in China’s North Korea policy, he or she can at least press Beijing not to make negotiations even more complicated than they already have been.

Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University and author of Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council (Routledge, 2013). The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Flickr/Roman Harak