The world has held its breath over the last two months. For nuclear strategists and specialists in the field of international security, this boiling predicament on the Korean Peninsula has been less an occasion for fatalist joking than a grim spectacle of just how dangerous and destabilizing the process of nuclear proliferation can be in any situation, let alone one in which both “players” in an asymmetric rivalry are inclined toward bombast, ambiguity, and risk-taking.
When Donald Trump first took office, he and his national security advisors quickly reached the conclusion that China is the key to resolution or even just managing the volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula. In this conclusion, the 45th president was not actually wrong. He simply underestimated the difficulties and complexities involved, including the imperative for Washington to make some very hard choices in order to ease the crisis.
China is best positioned among all the powers of Northeast Asia to wield both sticks, and more importantly carrots, to manage a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis. In this space, I have repeatedly argued for the prioritization of the North Korean nuclear issue within U.S. foreign and defense policy circles, as well as within U.S.-China relations. However, such a policy would require a close understanding of Beijing’s complex and often contradictory approach to Pyongyang. This approach has a significant geo-economic dimension, likely involves calculations with respect to Chinese interests in the Arctic, could require some “ rebalancing” toward Pyongyang, as well as a certain understanding of how military scenarios could unfold from a Chinese perspective on the Peninsula—all themes I have explored in previous editions of this Dragon Eye series.
Still, it has not been possible to develop a relatively comprehensive typology of Chinese assessments regarding the Korean nuclear issue. But that is now almost realizable thanks to the diligent work of a Chinese postdoctoral researcher named Zhou Xiaojia [周晓加] at Fudan University of Shanghai. This academic published an ambitious survey of “The North Korean Nuclear Issue and the Perspectives of Chinese Scholars” [朝鲜核问题与中国学者的观点] in the May/June 2017 issue (No. 3) of the international relations journal Peace and Development [和平与发展]. This edition of Dragon Eye will summarize Zhou’s survey in the hopes of contributing to enhanced U.S.-China mutual understanding on this most vexing, yet important issue for global security. Zhou’s initial estimate is both crisp and profound: “Chinese scholars do not agree” [中国学术界看法不一].
Zhou’s first cut on the issue concerns the underlying reasons or responsibility for the current crisis. One group of scholars seems to blame the inherent difficulties of achieving cooperation, according to this survey. Thus, Fan Jishe [樊吉社] explains that given the twin goals of denuclearization and preserving stability, the problem lies in that Washington prioritizes the former, while Beijing prioritizes the latter. Another scholar Yang Xiyu [杨希雨] suggests that the major divide between China and the United States is that Beijing has always accepted North Korea’s right to peacefully develop nuclear energy, while Washington never did. The scholar Li Kaisheng [李开盛] sees no basis for cooperation because of different interests and a fundamental lack of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington. Li explains that one of the major restraints on the United States possible use of force against North Korea has been “China’s opposition and even [the possibility] of Chinese counter-attack” [中国的反对甚至反击]. He also straightforwardly explains that China will not accept the removal of the North Korean ruling regime, because that would mean U.S. military power directly on China’s border and the loss of China’s “strategic buffer” [战略缓冲地带]. Taking a rather less confrontational approach, the scholar Zhu Qin [朱芹] observes that the Six Party Talks failed because trust and punishment mechanisms were lacking. She also notes that those talks tended to consistently favor the stronger parties over the weaker parties, leading to increasing alienation by the latter. The scholar Cheng Xiaoyong [程晓勇] emphasizes the role of China and Russia insisting on preserving stability on the Korean Peninsula. That trend is further reinforced, he explains, by South Korea’s likewise strong aversion to the use of force.
Forming up the poles of the Chinese debate are some scholars, who pin the blame squarely on Washington versus others that see Pyongyang as most responsible for the current crisis. Xu Ning [许宁], for example, strongly criticizes hardline U.S. policies from the George W. Bush administration that placed North Korea “on pins and needles” [芒刺在背], such that Pyongyang sought nuclear weapons for self-defense [拥核自保]. Moreover, he contends that President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” only made the situation worse in that regard. Sun Ru [孙茹] is not entirely critical of Washington’s stance in that she evaluates U.S. policy in recent years as wielding not only a big stick, but carrots as well [大棒与胡萝卜兼具]. However, she sees little internal U.S. political support for an engagement policy with North Korea and also notes that Washington does not view the North Korean nuclear issue as a “core interest.”