By Michael Pearson
The June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un effectively pressed the pause button on the bellicose rhetoric over the Asian nation’s nascent nuclear and missile programs and offered hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
China’s ruling Communist party, however, may have seen that meeting in an entirely different light, inducing Beijing to shift gears in its attitude toward engagement with North Korea and making a political solution less likely, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs Professor Fei-Ling Wang argues in a new paper published this month in the Asian Journal of Peacebuilding.
The school is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Wang, a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, is an eminent scholar of China studies who argued in his 2017 book, The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power (SUNY Press) that the ruling party of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is working to reestablish an ancient mandate to rule “all under heaven.”
He argues that, despite its qualms about a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border, the Communist party sees more value in keeping the United States at bay and North Korea on its side by forging stronger bonds with its sometimes wayward ally.
“Since June 2018, U.S.-China conflicts over trade, tensions in the South China Sea, and, perhaps, also issues regarding Taiwan have all seemed to intensify, and Beijing has moved back to its traditional policy of resisting and reducing U.S. influence first and pursuing denuclearization in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) second, if ever,” he wrote.
The main risk to China, Wang said, is in North Korea — Beijing’s only treaty ally — accepting enticements from the West to dismantle its program in exchange for economic and political benefits as a defanged client state of the United States and its Asian allies.
Removing the North Korean buffer between China and U.S. allies South Korea and Japan is politically too much for China’s rulers to bear, despite the obvious benefits in geopolitical stature and trade that such a resolution would offer to the nation as a whole, Wang said.
Such a scenario could play out even if China uses its considerable economic clout to force North Korea into dropping its weapons program, leaving Beijing with little incentive to forcefully press the nuclear issue with Pyongyang.
“The PRC seems determined to have a win-win for itself: to prevent nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia while continuing to resist and reduce American power through rebalancing and enhancing its ties with Pyongyang so as to ‘deepen cooperation’ with its ideological comrade,” Wang wrote.
“As frightening as it sounds, if South Korea or Japan, fearful of a stalemate, would move to develop their own nuclear weapons — a proposal U.S. President Donald Trump openly floated as a candidate — the PRC may then be forced to reexamine its position and change its action,” Wang said. “In short, without a political change-of-heart in Beijing, a peaceful North Korean denuclearization will be unavoidably long and arduous, if doable at all.”
Wang’s article, China and the Prospects of Denuclearization of North Korea, appears in the December edition of the Asian Journal of Peacebuilding.