US-China rivalry – including a trade war and tensions over Taiwan and South China Sea – is escalating. In October 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence even insinuated that a new Cold War may be underway.
Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has good reasons to exalt at the intensifying G2 rivalry. Great power competition enlarges North Korea’s strategic value and impairs denuclearisation.
Locked in a security dilemma with the US, China could diagnose US-led security network in Asia as containment. In turn, this encourages Chinese views to accept North Korea, with or without nuclear weapons, as an ally in the fight against the United States. In a zero-sum game with Washington, Beijing could end up tolerating Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions as long as those weapons pose greater threat to the United States than to China.
Bracing for a return of Cold War in Asia, China cannot afford to let sanctions on North Korea undermine Beijing’s influence over its only ally. Historically, China feared losing this erratic ally. During the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split rendered North Korea a valued pivot state between Moscow and Beijing, forcing China to accommodate North Korean demands to prevent its full entry into the Soviet sphere of influence.
The immediate post–Cold War period brought a temporary détente between North Korea and the West, with North Korean delegates commenting during 1992 talks that Pyongyang wanted the United States in Asia to check Japan’s rise. Kim’s peace offensive produced three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a first-ever summit with a US president, so the Chinese have reasons to fear losing North Korea.
While some Chinese foreign policy analysts see North Korea as more of a liability than an asset, any dramatic turn by the reclusive regime to embrace Washington would herald geopolitical disaster for China, which already faces major border challenges – both land and sea – in the Taiwan Strait, India and Russia. In the context of American encirclement, China could seek to keep Pyongyang close at all costs, even if that means derailing the denuclearisation process by normalising trade with the regime.
In the same vein, China seeks to reassert influence in the denuclearisation talks, maintaining leverage over North Korea by exercising a dual strategy of pressure and protection. Washington seeks speedy front-loading, with both sides exchanging big concessions from the start. However, China empathises with North Korea’s promotion of a phased, synchronised approach – rewarding each small step of compliance. That gradual process historically has allowed North Korea to resort to salami tactics, reneging on commitments after reaping rewards.
Officially, China claims to be in line with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign by maintaining an unprecedented level of sanctions on Pyongyang. However, chances of a military conflict in the Korean Peninsula have subsided since the tense summer of 2017, allowing China to relax sanctions. Reports suggest that North Korean workers are returning to China, as officials ignore illicit border trade and accelerate industrial projects in the border cities of Tumen and Namyang. The Chinese claim sanctions relief provides incentives, but the North’s obstinacy in the current diplomatic deadlock coincides with weakening of the international sanctions regime.
Ultimately, China uses North Korea as a bargaining chip for favorable Sino-American relations: a rearrangement of new great-power relations in the face of the Trump administration’s containment efforts. Chinese leaders surely expected proactive cooperation in sanctions would tone down the promised trade dispute and consequently felt betrayed after Trump launched tariffs. Perhaps related, two summits between Xi Jinping and Kim in 2018 allegedly ended with the Chinese president promising economic assistance ahead of complete denuclearisation, providing incentives to move slowly on giving up nuclear weapons.
US intelligence officials also commented that Kim’s attitude shifted immediately after his second summit with Xi in May 2018. By displaying influence over Pyongyang, Beijing may remind Washington that China’s full cooperation is indispensable for denuclearising North Korea. China will likely demand reciprocity elsewhere in return for pressure on Pyongyang.
Opportunity for China
Furthermore, Sino-American tensions persuade Beijing to pursue a policy that can “kill two birds with one stone.” China sees an opportunity to juxtapose and remove two regional threats: North Korean nuclear weapons and US troops in South Korea. Since the 1990s, North Korea relentlessly stressed how the American idea of Pyongyang’s unilateral disarmament differs from its concept of denuclearisation. The regime issued a statement yet again in December clarifying that the term denuclearisation refers to “removing nuclear threats not only from the South and the North but from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula,” including the “invasive forces the United States placed in South Korea.” In essence, North Korea’s and China’s bucket lists for the US are virtually identical: remove troops from South Korea, cease joint military exercises with allies and discontinue warships patrolling the East China Sea.
Amid intensifying tensions between China and the United States, weakening the US-Republic of Korea alliance would be invaluable for Beijing. South Korea is seen as a “weaker ring” of the US-led alliance system in Asia, and China has already resumed pressuring South Korea to remove the US missile-defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. China argues, in defiance of contrary evidence, that the system is designed to monitor Chinese missile movements.
Such intricate dynamics allow Kim to exercise more intransigence, as he can blame China for lagged negotiations. In March 2018, North Korea cancelled high-level talks with South Korea, citing Operation Max Thunder, a joint US-Republic of Korea military exercise, though Kim earlier had personally assured South Korean envoys of his readiness to accept joint exercises while talks were underway. The sudden change led experts to question China’s role as an outspoken critic of the US military presence on the peninsula. Trump repeatedly showered Kim with praise, even calling him honorable, and blamed China for slow progress in denuclearisation. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s consecutive Pyongyang visits produced few results, and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun hasn’t met his North Korean counterpart, Choi Sun-hee – an impasse attributed to differences in North Korean and US views of denuclearisation.
South Korea’s role here is to ensure that US-China competition does not disrupt diplomacy’s momentum. Seoul must at least minimise the adverse effects of the rivalry on talks with North Korea and, more importantly, clarify its position on the utility of sanctions. Seoul has sent mixed signals to the United States, China and North Korea, and Moon’s visit to European nations in October ended with rhetoric on loosening North Korean sanctions for a speedy resolution.
Seoul also accelerated platforms for broader inter-Korean economic cooperation. At the same time, however, Seoul claims to work with the United States in maintaining pressure on North Korea. Such ambiguity sows distrust on both sides. China, in particular, may sense a window of opportunity to dismantle the US-ROK alliance. Prudent positioning is required of South Korea: Maintaining the US alliance should remain a priority, but going beyond the alliance’s current scope – for example, joining the security “quad” – could antagonise Beijing. South Korean administrations since the end of the Cold War, both progressive and conservative, sought Seoul’s rise as a balancer capable of mediating great power disputes. While such a goal may be idealistic for now, Seoul should at least shield its own interests from the fallout of G2 rivalry.
Taehwa Hong is a research assistant at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and an opinion writer for Asia Times. His previous work has been featured in The Business Times, Huffington Post, The WorldPost, The Peninsula and YaleGlobal Online.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.