A Test for Beijing: China and the North Korean Nuclear Quandry

By Gill, Bates; Thompson, Andrew | Arms Control Today, May 2003 | Go to article overview

A Test for Beijing: China and the North Korean Nuclear Quandry


Gill, Bates, Thompson, Andrew, Arms Control Today


China's late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, set the tone for much of China's foreign policy in the 1990s when he cautioned Chinese strategists to "keep a low profile and avoid taking the lead." For better or worse, this axiom has come to define China's approach to the ominous North Korean nuclear quandary. Although China has significant interests in seeing a peaceful resolution to this troubling situation, it finds itself severely constrained from taking a more open and proactive approach with its neighbor. Moreover, for a range of complex reasons, Beijing's near-term and strategic priorities differ in many respects from those of the United States, risking increased tensions with Washington over North Korea.

Faced with a host of difficult choices and with a predilection toward a reactive, wait-and-see approach, Beijing has urged caution, diplomacy, and abjuration of coercive measures. But as the standoff of North Korea's nuclear ambitions becomes more intractable and threatening, Washington and others in the region will expect far more of China. Encouragingly, with the prospects for Washington-Pyongyang-Beijing talks, there are important signs of a more proactive but still low-profile Chinese role.

China's Priorities

The United States and China share a common set of overarching goals vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula: both wish to see a stable and non-nuclear North Korea that resolves differences peacefully and does not become a fulcrum for regional instabilities more broadly. Considering how to achieve those aims, however, and under what terms exposes divergent priorities and strategic preferences between Washington and Beijing. Put another way, while Washington and Beijing might have similar goals regarding Korean Peninsula security, their respective priorities are ordered differently.

North Korea's geographic proximity and geostrategic importance require Chinese leaders to take a more comprehensive and strategic approach to addressing Pyongyang's provocations. With North Korea on its doorstep, Beijing has to place Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions within a calculus of other, often more important concerns in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, all of its decisions-good, bad, or worse-carry more weight for China than for the United States. That alone explains much of Beijing's uneasy caution about intervening in the crisis.

Further complicating the geostrategic picture for Beijing is the fact that the other major player in the ongoing North Korea dilemma-the United States-happens to be the world's most powerful country and China's single most important economic partner. Until Beijing clearly understands Washington's policies and intentions toward North Korea and how China's interests fit into that picture, it will be reluctant to take bold measures from which it cannot easily retreat, that might weaken its hand in the overall outcome of the current North Korea imbroglio, or that undermine a productive relationship with the United States.

Chinese strategists are sensitive to the Catch-22 problem they face in Washington: China is under pressure to exert its influence over North Korea and is criticized for not doing enough. On the other hand, although Beijing has quietly begun exerting pressure through oil-supply disruptions and closed-door diplomacy, it must be sensitive not to appear too eager to take the lead or too intent on marginalizing the U.S. presence on the peninsula. All the while, Washington has haltingly provided signals on the direction it wishes to go or whether it is prepared to support China's efforts fully. From Beijing's perspective, caution and circumspection seem warranted.

Until recently, Beijing had a particularly strong incentive to move slowly on any issue of major geopolitical importance. The current flare-up in the North Korean nuclear impasse has coincided precisely with the just-completed formal transition of power to the new "fourth generation" of leaders in Beijing-a period in which Chinese leaders were not prepared to make any bold moves. …

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