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.
To forestall a US military strike, Beijing could no longer remain an onlooker, but had to actively and directly intervene. This would explain why Beijing also took the initiative to host the “six-party talks” (involving North and South Korea also, the US, Japan and Russia) to chair and coordinate the consultations on North Korea’s denuclearization.
The forum began in August 2003 and went through five rounds of formal meetings until the end of 2008. The participants, at China’s behest, produced in September 2005 “The Joint Statement on the Principles of Denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula,” in which North Korea consented to its denuclearization and the concrete steps to achieve this, in exchange for security reassurance, diplomatic recognition and economic assistance by the US, South Korea and Japan.
However, both China and North Korea were the big winners, as the six-party talks removed the possibility of US military attack and provided the cover and time needed for Pyongyang to continue its research and development into nuclear arms and long-range missile programs.
Through skillful management and manipulation of the multilateral forum, Beijing boosted its reputation as an international peacemaker and, on several occasions, obtained special favors from Bush to rein in Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Taiwan’s pro-independence former president.
On the contrary, it should be strongly pointed out that the Chinese leadership does not worry about a nuclear-armed North Korea. Furthermore, if the US and the UN can be trusted, Chinese military and state-owned enterprises have played leading roles in aiding Pyongyang’s development of missile systems and nuclear technologies.
In fact, Pyongyang continues to take Chinese aid and support for granted, because both sides have maintained a symbiotic relationship.
North Korea has served as a valuable strategic buffer state shielding China from US troops stationed in South Korea and Japan. Further, Chinese leaders believe that China’s national interests are best served by a stable Kim regime and Beijingwill do what it takes to safeguard the status quo in the Korean peninsula, including the division of North and South Korea.
North Korea’s state media reiterated not long ago Pyongyang’s commitment to building nuclear weapons. The country’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper asserted that North Korea’s “measures for bolstering nuclear deterrents are an exercise of the legitimate right to defend the sovereignty and security of the nation.”
If Obama seeks to “outsource” North Korea’s denuclearization to Xi, that will truly be mission impossible.
As long as the US continues its “pivot to Asia,” which is strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, and providing sophisticated arms to Taiwan, it is seen as targeting China. While the US continues to aim at China, do not expect Xi to do Obama’s bidding.
Parris Chang is chair professor of general education at Toko University and CEO of the Taiwan Institute of Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.