A final insight from Wang is that he somewhat anticipates the impressive Olympic truce between the two Koreas when he says that “one can imagine that if China, the DPRK, and the ROK take a single stand on the nuclear question, then the United States will then be relatively passive [可以想像如果中韩朝在核问题上立场一致, 美国就比较被动].” Wang maintains that a four-power negotiating framework, along with the Chinese strategy of “making the hard harder and soft softer [硬更硬软更软]” will yield the best results from the negotiations.
A recent New York Times assessment of the chance for talks on the North Korea nuclear crisis following the return the South Korean emissaries from Pyongyang strikes a stridently skeptical tone. It concludes that “China is a bystander,” but the “new warmth between North and South Korea . . . is a further boon to China, which would welcome any strains in the South’s alliance with the United States.” It goes on to quote an expert, suggesting, “The Chinese enjoy the wedge North Korea is driving between South Korea and the U.S.” Such zero-sum thinking, stoking the U.S.-China rivalry, might sell newspapers. And there are actually plenty of Chinese who are also afflicted by similar Cold War thinking. For instance, a recent Chinese academic paper on U.S. policy towards the Korean Peninsula concludes that Washington has a “double-wedge strategy,” intending to drive a wedge between China and South Korea, while a second wedge is intended to divide China and North Korea. Yet the great-power games that flow from such zero-sum analyses, whether by Chinese or by Americans, have never helped the cause of peace or the people on the Korean Peninsula, a shrimp among whales.
Trump’s brave decision to meet with Kim Jong-un will be criticized as impulsive, premature, weak and naïve. However, to break the continuous and ever-more-dangerous cycle of rivalry and brinkmanship requires putting narrow zero-sum geopolitical games aside and seeking a common set of interests, including arms control, stability and economic development that will benefit all states in the region—including, yes, both China and North Korea too.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.
Image: Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army at Zhurihe military training base in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. China Daily via Reuters.