The UN Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions on North Korea after its third nuclear test last month.
While the international community punishes Pyongyang for its recalcitrant behavior, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the US and China have failed to thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition. It is high time that the two powers did serious soul-searching about the messy situation in Northeast Asia.
Both powers oppose North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship, but the US’ “sticks only” and China’s “lips and teeth” policies toward North Korea have failed. At the core is the difficulty for the US and China to establish a trust-based relationship to deal with common challenges.
Offering continuous support for a repressive government and sometimes tacitly condoning its reckless behavior are not commensurate with China’s aspiration to be a responsible great power.
To be friends with a rogue regime like North Korea deeply damages China’s international image. Nevertheless, North Korea is a traditional ally, with enduring, albeit declining, strategic value to China today.
China does not want to side with North Korea all the time, or support North Korea’s many repulsive policies, yet it cannot simply let North Korea fail and collapse given the complex security situation in East Asia.
With China acting like an indulgent parent, North Korea has been emboldened to challenge the international community repeatedly.
China mistakenly hopes that North Korea will open up under its leader Kim Jong-un.
The changes Kim has introduced have proven to be superficial and he seems determined to carry on the songun (military first) policy, brushing off China’s warnings and disregarding China’s interests.
The third nuclear test was a wake-up call. China must reconsider its security strategy and change its North Korea policy. Cutting aid to North Korea will be an initial step in the right direction.
However, with little trust between Beijing and Washington, China is unlikely to pressure North Korea too much. Failure to support North Korea, which will lead to its eventual collapse, could result in far worse consequences for China than many outside observers realize.
A unified, nuclear-capable, and pro-US Korea, with US and Korean troops potentially just across the Yalu River, is not a satisfactory scenario for China. Millions of North Korean refugees will pose tremendous economic, social, political and humanitarian challenges for it.
Such Chinese concerns must be alleviated before Beijing will commit to denuclearizing North Korea, but a nuclearized North Korea, though not what China favors, may be more acceptable than a collapsed North Korea.
The US’ Asia policy has been dubbed the “pivot to Asia” in the past couple of years. The US has beefed up relations with traditional allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, reached out to new friends such as Vietnam and Burma, and deployed additional troops in Australia.
Despite the US government’s repeated denial that its “strategic rebalancing” is aimed at encircling China, such suspicions run deep in Beijing.
The reason is simple: The “pivot to Asia” policy has a fatal flaw — while warming up relations with China’s neighbors, the US has not done much to strengthen relations with China. As a result, the “pivot to Asia” smacks of a new type of “encirclement” of China in the eyes of many Chinese and foreign observers, and has been damaging to US-China relations.
North Korea may well have taken advantage of the split between China and the US in its repeated provocations.
A new approach to North Korea must begin with the recognition that the US’ and China’s current security policies toward each other, and toward the “Hermit Kingdom,” have failed.
As US President Barack Obama’s new foreign policy team takes shape, the US must redefine the “pivot to Asia” strategy and improve relations with China.
Without a strong and cooperative relationship with China, the US’ Asia policy will not succeed. As the leadership transfer is complete in Beijing, China’s new foreign and security policy makers must take a fresh look at the North Korea conundrum and be more creative in finding a viable solution.
Sanctions alone seldom work in international politics. It may be too late to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear state, but the US and China can, and should, work together to manage the North Korea challenge to promote lasting stability in East Asia and to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology.
Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.