The primary security problem confronting China’s policy makers today is the possibility of armed conflict between North Korea and the United States. But China has no intention of “solving” the North Korea issue, no matter how much Washington might wish otherwise. Beijing does not believe, as Washington does, that tensions on the Korean peninsula are solely the fault of Pyongyang. Indeed, all of China’s official statements are directed at both the United States and North Korea, and its latest proposal asks the two antagonists to consider mutual concessions in the interest of reducing tensions. The Chinese government is willing to mediate, but it does not see itself as a party to the conflict—and, for that very reason, does not believe it is in a position to resolve the standoff.
US policy on North Korea defines the security problem differently. Washington’s priority is to halt, and eventually roll back, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The United States does not see its own behavior as a contributing factor to the problem, and US policy makers claim they may use military force to resolve the standoff. China, like the United States, wants to freeze and eventually eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but that objective is secondary to preventing a major conflict in Northeast Asia.
This is a fundamental difference that no amount of US pressure is likely to change. Whatever cost the Trump administration imagines it can impose on its counterparts in Beijing, that price will never be as great as the cost of another Korean war.
China’s legal victory. China, in an official statement accompanying its vote in favor of a September 11 UN Security Council resolution on North Korea, emphasized its definition of the security problem, as well as its priorities and approach:
China urges the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to earnestly heed the expectations and will of the international community to halt the country’s nuclear and missile development, effectively abide by and implement the Council’s resolutions, stop any further nuclear and missile tests, and effectively work [toward] denuclearization. At the same time, the resolution reiterates the need to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula and in [Northeast] Asia. It also commits to resolving the issue through peaceful, diplomatic, and political means… . Comprehensive measures must be taken to balance the legitimate security concerns of all parties (emphasis added).
More important, China made certain that its priorities were included in the language of the resolution itself, which unambiguously declares that:
The Security Council… [a]cting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, and taking measures under its Article 41… expresses its commitment (emphasis added) to a peaceful, diplomatic, and political solution to the situation… .
Presumably, this language obliges the US government to keep whatever military options it may be considering off the table—an obligation that, as a matter of law, is not contingent upon North Korean compliance with the resolution. To be sure, nothing in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, or in the resolution, can “impair the inherent right” of the United States to defend itself if attacked. But China made certain that the UN Security Council committed the United States to a peaceful resolution of the situation.
In the United States, analysts and observers highlighted North Korea’s obligations under the resolution, as well as new sanctions contained in it to compel Pyongyang’s compliance. US officials complained that China used its veto power to limit the severity of those sanctions. But US analysts and officials appear to be ignoring the fact that the language of the resolution endorsed China’s definition of the North Korea security problem by imposing obligations on both parties to the conflict—the United States as well as North Korea.
Why China limits sanctions. China is worried that cutting off North Korea’s economic lifelines could precipitate a war. In March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed that concern to foreign journalists, saying “China is not going to sit back and watch stability on the peninsula fundamentally break down.” He promised that China would conscientiously implement sanctions limiting the North Korean government’s ability to build new weapons. But Wang also warned that “blind faith in sanctions and pressure” targeting the North Korean population “is not a responsible approach to North Korea’s future.”
During the latest round of UN negotiations, China once again refused to yield to US pressure to strangle North Korea’s economy. Cui Tiankai, ambassador to the United States, reminded US reporters that China will do “no more [and] no less” than was agreed to by the Security Council. (The Council’s resolution reaffirmed that sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea). And like Wang in March, Cui chided the United States for failing to live up to its obligation “to find an effective way to resume dialogue and negotiation.”
Privately, Chinese experts tell me that when they look at North Korea, they are reminded of Maoist-era China. When China was developing its nuclear weapons, its “Great Helmsman” cut a godlike figure. Massive public demonstrations of devotion to Mao’s cult of personality were the norm. Big-character posters were placed in every public square in the People’s Republic, displaying vitriolic promises to crush US imperialism.
Mao Zedong never glorified nuclear weapons the way Kim Jong-un does today, having famously characterized the atom bomb as a “paper tiger.” But the Chinese leadership did place an extraordinarily high value on proving to its adversaries that Chinese nuclear retaliation was a possibility, and Beijing developed this capability despite its technical inferiority, economic weakness, and international isolation.
For China, demonstrating to skeptical foreign observers that it had the capability to deliver nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles was so important that, in 1966, Beijing risked sticking a live warhead on a medium-range missile and launching it over populated areas of its own country before detonating it in the open air. If history is any guide, North Korean leaders—who lack other means to communicate with their counterparts in the United States—may feel the need to engage in an equally reckless demonstration.
Despite the obvious dangers entailed in the North Korean nuclear program, memories of China’s revolutionary, anti-American heritage create the hope within China—perhaps even the expectation—that, after acquiring a nuclear capability, the North Korean regime will follow in China’s footsteps. That is, it will reform itself to a degree that its possession of nuclear weapons becomes tolerable, if never acceptable, to the United States. Shen Dingli, a nuclear–arms control expert at Fudan University, argues that North Korea’s recent test of a thermonuclear weapon will ultimately bring peace to the peninsula in this fashion.
Of course, China remains committed to North Korean denuclearization. But this commitment is comparable to Beijing’s own commitment—or Washington’s—to denuclearize. Both China and the United States incurred an obligation to eliminate their own nuclear weapons when they ratified the same Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that North Korea is being sanctioned for violating.
China’s bottom line. Whatever happens in North Korea or at the United Nations, China has its own bottom line, which it included in its statement on the latest UN resolution:
We hope that the United States will incorporate the following four “don’ts” into its relevant policies regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: [D]on’t seek regime change; don’t incite a collapse of the regime; don’t seek an accelerated reunification effort of the peninsula; and don’t send its military north of the [38th] parallel.
The last time China warned the United States not to cross the 38th parallel, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told President Truman that China was bluffing and urged him to ignore China’s warning. Truman took his general’s advice and the Chinese attacked, surprising MacArthur. The Chinese offensive succeeded in driving US forces back below the 38th parallel, where they remain today.
Will Defense Secretary Mattis and President Trump make the same bet? Mattis, as MacArthur once did, reportedly believes that the United States has acceptable military options to strike North Korea first, in defiance of China’s warning. Last month, when Trump threatened military action against North Korea, the Chinese leadership signaled its resolve to prevent the United States from starting a war, and to prevent Washington from winning if it does start one.
When MacArthur encouraged Truman to ignore China’s bottom line, he did so by questioning Beijing’s willingness to use military force. He argued that there were “many fundamental logical reasons” that China would not risk a major military confrontation with the United States in 1950. Mattis and Trump may be hearing the same arguments today. Stories in the US press feature quotes from Chinese scholars questioning Beijing’s commitment to North Korea. US experts on Asia raise doubts about China’s willingness to make significant sacrifices on behalf of a regime that is becoming a geopolitical liability rather than an asset.
Lost in translation. The good news is that US and Chinese leaders are still talking to each other. Trump and President Xi Jinping appear to communicate by phone on a regular basis, and Trump will travel to China for another face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart in November, following their meeting in Florida in April.
The bad news is they may not trust, or even completely understand, what they are hearing from each other.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has related an incident that shows just how confusing personal encounters between US and Chinese leaders can be, especially when leaders come to the table with a headful of questionable convictions about the people on the other side. Gates was convinced that a few photos of a test flight of a new Chinese jet fighter, which had appeared on the Internet hours before his 2011 meeting with China’s president, were “about as big a ‘fuck you’ as you can get.” He seemed surprised that President Hu Jintao apparently did not know about the photos. Based on Gates’s account, the Chinese generals sitting next to Hu didn’t know either (Gates raised the issue at the beginning of a meeting that was supposed to focus on US-China cooperation on North Korea). Yet Gates, based on a conversation he heard Hu conducting with his generals, which no one seems to have translated into English, concluded that the Chinese leadership had intentionally posted the photos to intimidate him—and then lied about it.
Robert McNamara, looking back on his own communication and intelligence foibles as defense secretary during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, concluded that the most important lesson of the experience was that, sooner or later, “the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons would destroy nations.” The current US secretaries of state and defense continue to push policies that presume China will change its long-held, manifestly clear, and firmly defended position on North Korea. And they’ve repeatedly threatened to attack North Korea if China doesn’t bend to US pressure. Regular communication with China’s leaders has not changed their minds.
McNamara confessed it was dumb luck, not US military prowess or skilled diplomacy, that prevented nuclear war in 1962. Trump, before he entered the Oval Office, exhibited a fondness for casinos. As a gambling man, he may want to consider the odds that the world can be so lucky a second time.