US President Barack Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) today and tomorrow at Sunnylands in California to have in-depth discussions on “a wide range of bilateral, regional and global issues.”
Chief among the urgent matters is the crisis in the Korean Peninsula caused by Pyongyang’s warmongering, as North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un ratchets up threats of nuclear war.
In the past several months, the Obama administration has pressured Beijing to use its leverage to curb Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. While the Chinese leadership seems to be taking a tougher posture toward its ally state, including cutting off ties with North Korea’s Bank, the US sees China’s shift as merely a tactical move, and not strategic nor substantive in nature.
Obama hopes to use the face-to-face meeting with Xi to demand that China take bolder actions against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and provocations.
Is Beijing willing and able to do so? Some US experts, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger for one, assert that the Chinese leadership does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea, a recalcitrant ally and neighbor, and hence will support US efforts on North Korea’s denuclearization.
Yet Kissinger and others have not correctly read Chinese thinking, which follows a very different logic, as pointed out by former US president George W. Bush in his memoir Decision Points.
In October 2002, Bush invited then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to his ranch in Crawford and suggested to his guest that the US and China should work together diplomatically to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which is “a threat not only to the US, but also to China.” To quote Bush, “Jiang was respectful, but he told me North Korea was my problem, not his [and that] exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated.”
After a few months with no progress, Bush tried a different argument. He told Jiang that if North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continued, “I would not be able to stop Japan [China’s historic rival in Asia] from developing its own nuclear weapons.”
Bush pleaded with Jiang, saying: “You and I are in a position to work together to make certain that a nuclear arms race does not begin.” However, the plea was to no avail again.
In February 2003, Bush went one step further. He warned Jiang that if they could not solve the problem diplomatically, “I [Bush] would have to consider a military strike against North Korea.”
Jiang apparently took Bush’s warning very seriously and went to work on Pyongyang right away.
Chinese intervention resulted in a trilateral meeting of the US, North Korea and China in April in Beijing to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
The Chinese, and perhaps North Korean leaders, had good reason to believe that Bush was not bluffing. An alarmed South Korean government felt compelled to dispatch its foreign minister to Washington to plead against use of force in the Korean Peninsula. The move came in the wake of US military actions against Iraq in March 2003 and amid widespread international speculation that North Korea, another member of Bush’s “axis of evil,” could be the next target.
Beijing’s nightmare would be that a US military strike against North Korea could trigger a flood of refugees to cross into China, and worse, the collapse of the Kim regime and a unified Korea under the control of hostile forces.