People’s Republic of China president Xi Jinping has taken a noticeably stronger rhetorical stand against North Korea’s nuclear program since he came to office in March on the heels of North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. China backed a new UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s test and clearly distanced itself from North Korea, in contrast to its decision to embrace and defend North Korea as a strategic asset following North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009. There has been a slowdown in high-level contacts with Kim Jong-un and a striking chilliness to Sino-DPRK interaction following meetings in July and November 2012 between Kim Jong-un and high-level Chinese officials in Pyongyang. Last week DPRK Vice Minister held a “strategic dialogue” with his PRC foreign ministry counterpart Zhang Yesui that was devoid of the party-to-party interaction that has long made China-DPRK interactions “special” rather than “normal.”
The rhetorical shift has emerged clearly since President Xi first stated at the Boao Forum in March that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the world into chaos for selfish gains.” Moreover, Xi delivered a harsh message to North Korea’s top military figure Choe Ryong-hae during Choe’s late May visit to Beijing days prior to the Xi-Obama Sunnylands summit. During that meeting, Xi emphasized that “all the parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization, safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula, and resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation.”
President Xi reiterated China’s commitment to the unacceptability of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state in his summit discussions with President Obama in Sunnylands in June, aligning China’s policy priority on denuclearization with the respective positions of the United States and South Korea. The clarity of this statement bolstered the confidence of the Obama administration that the United States and China might actually be able to cooperate in achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and it has become the major concrete hope for better U.S.-China relations that is most directly associated with the idea that the United States and China can forge a “new type of great power relationship,” in which both powers can cooperate to achieve “win-win” results. But North Korea has emerged near the top of the U.S.-China agenda not so much because of a convergence of interests, but because it is the least difficult of an array of regional security challenges facing the United States and China.
The Xi-Obama commitment to build a “new type of great power relationship” provided a big boost to South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, who has come into office with a vision of cooperation in Northeast Asia that involves development of an improved South Korean relationship with China, but not at the expense of the U.S.-ROK alliance. A positive framework for U.S.-China relations provides South Korea with an opportunity to establish much more comprehensive cooperation with China without feeling that it has to choose between China and the United States. It also created hopes that South Korea could finally achieve a strategic breakthrough in its relations with China, at least to the extent that Seoul might be able to win recognition from Beijing that it is likely to be the dominant and most beneficial partner for China on the peninsula. South Koreans have consistently held the yet unrealized hopes for China-South Korea strategic cooperation ever since Roh Tae-woo pursued China-South Korea normalization over two decades ago.
Although South Korea and China may look to build more comprehensive cooperation through a joint statement that expands the scope of Sino-ROK cooperation, and Xi has repeated that it seeks North Korea’s denuclearization, it is still the case that the respective parties have conflicting secondary priorities regarding the end state of the Korean peninsula that are likely to inhibit cooperation. In this respect, it is notable that Xi emphasized to Park that “China resolutely safeguards the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region, opposes any party that disrupts peace and stability and adheres to resolving problems through dialogue and negotiations.” Following North Korea’s third nuclear test, China’s declaratory policies regarding North Korea have swung into alignment with those of the United States and South Korea, but China has not sacrificed its priority on stability and there is no indication as of yet that North Korea will return to the path of denuclearization. Park’s outreach to Xi and the joint China-South Korean effort to improve the relationship therefore represent not a breakthrough, but the beginning of an effort that will require considerably more investment before it sees real results.