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Are Proposed Sanctions on North Korea a Hopeful Sign for U.S.-China Relations?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Orville Schell:

What may end up being most significant about the new draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea, which China seems willing to sign, may not be what it amounts to in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK, but what it portends for U.S.-China relations. Although it is still too early to be certain, this may represent a bold new step forward by Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and China’s new leadership in signaling the U.S. that China is now interested in finding new areas of convergence. To date, China has been rather reluctant to support multilateral action toward so-called rogue regimes: China opposed NATO’s military campaign in Libya and, last July, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution, that would have threatened sanctions against Syria’s leadership.

But now not only have China’s leaders agreed to strict new sanctions on a foreign power, but on a country that is both a neighbor and a traditional ally.

This is a particularly tantalizing moment because it comes just as the new leaders in Beijing are beginning to define their new foreign policy perspective while at the same time Barrack Obama is reorganizing his team for his second term. It may well represent the most significant gesture China has made toward Washington in recent years of wanting to reset the bilateral relationship.

When he visited Washington last year, Xi called for a “new type of great power relationship.” And at the 18th Party Congress last November, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s report to the Party spoke of a “new type of relations among major powers” characterized by “mutual respect, mutual benefits and a win-win partnership.”

It’s going to be interesting to watch both how Washington interprets this gesture and how the Chinese for their part carry it out.

Responses

It’s good news that China and the U.S. managed to agree on intensifying and broadening United Nations sanctions on the D.P.R.K. after its third nuclear test, to include new restrictions on North Korea’s diplomats’ transferring cash out of the country, beefed up inspection of North Korean imports and exports and prohibitions on the sale of the luxury items North Korea’s leaders enjoy.

China has been looking for ways to stabilize its relations with the U.S. and its Asian neighbors, and cooperating to strengthen the international pressure on Pyongyang certainly helps.

After more than a decade of reassuring diplomacy toward its neighbors, China has started using coercive diplomacy to show its resolve to defend its maritime territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Its threatening rhetoric and actions have raised anxieties in Asian capitals and in Washington that China’s rise might not be peaceful after all.

In this context, China is seeking opportunities to shore up its international reputation as a responsible power and prevent its relations with the U.S. as well as with South Korea from worsening.It can find such opportunities in developing common approaches to tough problems like North Korea, Iran, and Syria with the U.S. and other countries.

It’s too soon to tell whether China’s support of the sanctions resolution means that it has made strategic decision to radically change its policy toward North Korea. Some influential figures in the Chinese elite have soured on the D.P.R.K. and are speaking out publicly to urge a tougher approach or even abandoning China’s troublesome ally. Yesterday Mao Zedong’s grandson, a major general, criticized North Korea’s nuclear program yesterday.

But remember that China did support three previous rounds of UN sanctions on Korea. The actual impact of the sanctions depends on how China enforces them. The sanctions could have real bite if China slows down trade across the border by stopping to inspect trucks to make sure they don’t carry any of the items on the sanctions lists, and Chinese banks turn down North Korean business. The more transparent China can make its enforcement of the sanctions, the greater the boost to its international reputation and its relations with the U.S. and South Korea.

Orville,

I hope your read of Beijing’s motivations is correct. But I am more inclined to see this move on China’s part less as a “significant gesture” toward Washington and more as a clear-eyed assessment of the realities on the ground. Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test, combined with ongoing work on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could reach the United States, raises the threat to a new level for Washington. Although the capability to hit U.S. soil is not yet a reality, Beijing likely recognizes that North Korea’s actions could very well push the U.S. to beef up its military presence in the region, including stronger anti-missile defenses going to South Korea and possibly Japan. A more robust U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia that serves to strengthen capabilities of American allies is the last thing Beijing wants right now.

It’s true that China backed previous U.N. sanctions on North Korea but then continued to pump resources into the D.P.R.K. The question is why.

Beijing’s logic has always been that any tough policy measures directed at the D.P.R.K. could cause the regime to collapse, and China, obviously, was not and is not ready for that: refugees, political and economic chaos, a mess for China to clean up the dimensions and character of which are hard to predict, the possibility of dragging down China’s economy and most importantly, the way the fall of the Kim regime would inevitably reshuffle the Northeast Asian geopolitical order. China’s government, facing millions of episodes of social unrest and trying hard to maintain its economic miracle, doesn’t want the kind of surprises a collapsed North Korean regime would bring. Moreover, as Suzanne points out, China’s decision makers have never felt comfortable or relaxed their vigilance vis-a-vis America’s presence in the region, which also means that the Chinese government has never and will not unreservedly follow any American-led move on this issue.

What is changing now is that Chinese are getting more and more fed up with North Korea: its unilateral withdrawal from the Six Party Talks in 2005, a mere 20-minutes heads-up to China about its nuclear test in 2006, and this week’s threat to nullify the armistice that ended the Korean War are all irritants to the China-D.P.R.K. relationship. China’s leaders may respond to its increasingly tense relationship with its neighbor by doing things like supporting the sanctions introduced at the U.N. this week, but they won’t do anything big before thinking through this question of whether North Korea is a strategic asset for China or a liability.

I would hope Orville’s upbeat interpretation proves sound, but we can all agree it is too early to tell. Xi Jinping may well wish to send a positive signal but this by itself is hardly grounds for much optimism. As has been pointed out, China has supported sanctions before. This time, as always, it dragged its feet (maybe until South Korea was no longer U.N. Security Council chair) and diluted the product. Let us hope that this time, unlike before, it does not undercut the implementation.

Beijing clearly is increasingly frustrated with its neighbor and, as has been pointed out, is hurting many of its own interests with its shielding and supporting of Pyongyang. But its concerns for “stability” and fear of reunification are likely to trump any real change in its policy. It continues to call for calm from all sides when clearly the North is causing all the trouble.

In short we will have to see much more solid proof of Xi’s overall intentions. And on North Korea itself I fear that Lucy is still holding the football.

It would seem that senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official Cui Tiankai, likely to be the next ambassador to the U.S., read Orville’s post overnight, and responded with comments on the sidelines of the CPPCC to make it clear the Beijing is not interested in using sanctions on North Korea as a means to improve Sino-U.S. relations. “it’s very inaccurate to say China and the United States have reached a deal on imposing sanctions on North Korea,” quoth Cui.

Presumably the draft (ie, leaked) U.N. Security Council resolution will still be approved as planned, but already Beijing seems to be signaling this is not the start of some grand cooperation with Washington to “teach Pyongyang a lesson.” And that’s a good thing, since draconian sanctions on the D.P.R.K. would not be a promising area for Xi Jinping and Obama to get their cooperative training wheels on—for the simple reason that sanctions don’t work on North Korea. The country has been sanctioned since it came into existence, but it’s still there, acting as it sees fit rather than as others want it to. The last five years have seen considerable effort to increase sanctions and reduce economic cooperation (particularly by South Korea), and to what effect? Kim Jong Un has an even better nuclear and missile program than his father. So let’s hope this is not what Xi and Obama pick for their first low hanging fruit of cooperation. More promising over the long run (though no easier in the near term), is for Beijing, Washington, and Seoul to coordinate the resumption of direct dialogue and phased economic engagement (lifting sanctions to incentivize licit economic development and peaceful foreign relations, rather than add sanctions to cut off the flow of yachts to the D.P.R.K.). Secretary Kerry seems to get that diplomacy and negotiation is the wiser course. That would be the place to look for U.S.-China cooperation…though it will be a hard slog with visible success coming more toward the end than the beginning of the process.

Very telling post from John Delury. Indeed, it does seem as if Cui Tiankai were responding to my suggestion that Beijing might have been signaling the U.S. that it was now seeking to find some new area of collaboration with it via the issue of nuclear proliferation in the D.P.R.K. I found it very telling that he came right out to unabashedly disabuse anyone who might be led to naively presume that Beijing’s apparent willingness to sign onto the new Security Council sanctions agreement was a hint of a new willingness to approach bi-lateral relations with the U.S. somewhat differently. At least for the moment, it would seem that no larger signal was intended. And, that’s a pity, because the two countries urgently need to find such a reset button. (Of course, whether such sanctions against the D.P.R.K. are actually effective—as  Delury seriously questions—is an entirely different question).

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...
Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San...
Suzanne DiMaggio is the Vice President of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society in New York. She oversees Asia Society’s task forces, working groups, and Track II initiatives aimed at promoting...
Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political...
Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. He was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993. Before assuming his duties, Ambassador Lord...
John Delury is an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. Delury is...

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05.23.13

China and the Other Asian Giant: Where are Relations...

MICHAEL KULMA, MARK FRAZIER & others

Mike Kulma:Earlier this week at an Asia Society forum on U.S.-China economic relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked that when the U.S. first started down the path of normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s, the economic relationship and trade between the two...

Blog

05.21.13

U.S.-China Economic Relations—What Will the Next...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

On Monday, within hours of the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on a visit to California on June 7-8, Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive and President of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, introduced former U.S....

Blog

05.16.13

China: What’s Going Right?

MICHAEL ZHAO, JAMES FALLOWS & others

Michael Zhao:On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are...

Blog

05.14.13

Why Can’t China Make Its Food Safe?—Or Can It?

ALEX WANG, JOHN C. BALZANO & others

The month my wife and I moved to Beijing in 2004, I saw a bag of oatmeal at our local grocery store prominently labeled: “NOT POLLUTED!” How funny that this would be a selling point, we thought.But 7 years later as we prepared to return to the US, what was once a joke had...

Blog

05.10.13

What’s China’s Game in the Middle East?

RACHEL BEITARIE, MASSOUD HAYOUN & others

Rachel Beitarie:Xi Jinping’s four point proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is interesting not so much for its content, as for its source. While China has maintained the appearance of being involved in Middle East politics for years, its top leaders, so far,...

Blog

05.07.13

Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese...

RACHEL LU, ANDREW J. NATHAN & others

With a population base of 1.3 billion people, China has no shortage of strange and gruesome crimes, but the attempted murder of Zhu Ling by thallium poisoning in 1995 is burning up China’s social media long after the trails have gone cold. Zhu, a brilliant and beautiful...

Blog

05.02.13

Does Promoting “Core Interests” Do China More Harm...

THE EDITORS, STEPHANIE T. KLEINE-AHLBRANDT & others

On April 30, as tensions around China’s claims to territories in the South- and East China Seas continued to simmer, we began what proved to be a popular ChinaFile Conversation, asking the question, What's Really at the Core of China’s ‘Core Interests’? The participants...

Blog

04.30.13

What’s Really at the Core of China’s “Core...

SHAI OSTER, ANDREW J. NATHAN & others

Shai Oster:It’s Pilates diplomacy—work on your core. China’s diplomats keep talking about China’s core interests and it’s a growing list. In 2011, China included its political system and social stability as core interests. This year, it has added a vast chunk of the...

Blog

04.25.13

Hollywood in China—What’s the Price of Admission?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, YING ZHU & others

Last week, DreamWorks Animation (DWA), the Hollywood studio behind the worldwide blockbuster Kung Fu Panda films, announced that it will cooperate with the China Film Group (CFG) on an animated feature called Tibet Code, an adventure story based on a series of recent Chinese...

Blog

04.23.13

How Would You Spend (the Next) $300 Million on U.S.-...

ORVILLE SCHELL & MICHAEL KULMA

Orville Schell:When Stephen A. Schwarzman announced his new $300 million program aimed at sending foreign scholars to Tsinghua University in Beijing the way Rhodes Scholarship, set up by the businessman and statesman Cecil Rhodes in 1902 began sending American scholars to Oxford...

Blog

04.18.13

How Fast Is China’s Slowdown Coming, and What Should...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, BARRY NAUGHTON & others

Slower Chinese GDP growth is not a bad thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. But it’s not happening for the right reasons.Instead of reining in credit to try to curb over-investment, Chinese authorities have allowed a renewed explosion in credit in an effort to fuel...

Blog

04.16.13

Why is China Still Messing with the Foreign Press?

ANDREW J. NATHAN, ISABEL HILTON & others

To those raised in the Marxist tradition, nothing in the media happens by accident.  In China, the flagship newspapers are still the “throat and tongue” of the ruling party, and their work is directed by the Party’s Propaganda Department.  That’s the first...

Blog

04.11.13

Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, DONALD CLARKE & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.Israel and Saudi...

Blog

04.03.13

Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time?

DAVID WERTIME, YANZHONG HUANG & others

David Wertime:A new strain of avian flu called H7N9 has infected at least seven humans and killed three in provinces near the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, with the first death occurring on March 4. Meanwhile, in the last month, about 16,000 pigs, 1,000 ducks, and a few swans...

Blog

04.02.13

Why Did Apple Apologize to Chinese Consumers and What...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:On March 22, before the foreign media or Apple themselves seemed to have grasped the seriousness of the CCTV attacks on the Californian behemoth, I wrote a post on Danwei.com that concluded:“The signs are clear that regulators and establishment media would both...

Blog

03.28.13

Will China’s Renminbi Replace the Dollar as the World...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, DAMIEN MA & others

Patrick Chovanec:This week’s news that Brazil and China have signed a $30 billion currency swap agreement gave a renewed boost to excited chatter over the rising influence of China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB). The belief, in many quarters, is that the renminbi is well on...

Blog

03.26.13

Can China Transform Africa?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & others

Jeremy Goldkorn:The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the “China shops”—small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware—that have become ubiquitous in Southern...

Blog

03.19.13

China’s New Leaders Say They Want to Fight Corruption...

ANDREW J. NATHAN & OUYANG BIN

In his first press conference after taking office as China's new premier, Li Keqiang declared that one of his top priorities would be to fight corruption, because “Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water.” This put Li on message...

Blog

03.15.13

Is the One Child Policy Finished—And Was It a Failure...

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ALEXA OLESEN & others

Dorinda Elliott:China’s recent decision to phase out the agency that oversees the one-child policy has raised questions about whether the policy itself will be dropped—and whether it was a success or a failure.Aside from the burdens only children feel when it comes...

Blog

03.13.13

China’s Post 1980’s Generation—Are the Kids All...

SUN YUNFAN, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

This week, the ChinaFile Conversation is a call for reactions to an article about China's current generation gap, written by James Palmer, a Beijing-based historian, author, and Global Times editor. The article, first published by Aeon in the U.K., “The Balinghou: Chinese...

Blog

03.08.13

Will China’s Property Market Crash, and So What If It...

DORINDA ELLIOTT & BILL BISHOP

Dorinda Elliott:At this week’s National People’s Congress, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that the government kept housing prices from rising too fast. Really? I wonder what my 28-year-old Shanghainese friend Robert thinks about that. He and his fiancée could never...

Blog

03.01.13

Is America’s Door Really Open to China’s Investment...

DANIEL H. ROSEN, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

Daniel Rosen:There have not been many new topics in U.S.-China economic relations over the past decade: the trade balance, offshoring of jobs, Chinese holding of U.S. government debt, whether China’s currency is undervalued and intellectual property protection problems have...

Blog

02.27.13

How Long Can China Keep Pollution Data a State Secret?

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

Elizabeth Economy:The environment is center stage once again in China. A Chinese lawyer has requested the findings of a national survey on soil pollution from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and been denied on the grounds that the information is a state secret. (The...

Blog

02.22.13

Will Investment in China Grow or Shrink?

DONALD CLARKE & DAVID SCHLESINGER

Donald Clarke:I don’t have the answer as to whether investment in China will grow or shrink, but I do have a few suggestions for how to think about the question. First, we have to clarify why we want to know the answer to this question: what do we think it will tell us? This...

Blog

02.20.13

Cyber Attacks—What’s the Best Response?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, JAMES FALLOWS & others

Jonathan Landreth:With regular ChinaFile Conversation contributor Elizabeth Economy on the road, I turned to her colleague Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Segal said that “the time for naming and...

Blog

02.15.13

U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ELIZABETH ECONOMY & others

Dorinda Elliott:On a recent trip to China, I heard a lot of scary talk of potential war over the disputed Diaoyu Islands—this from both senior intellectual types and also just regular people, from an elderly calligraphy expert to a middle-aged history professor. People seemed...

Blog

02.13.13

North Korea: How Much More Will China Take and How...

WINSTON LORD, TAI MING CHEUNG & others

China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea and may even see more clearly that its actions only serve to increase allied unity, stimulate Japanese militarism and accelerate missile defense. For all these reasons the U.S. should lean on Beijing to—at last—not only help...

Blog

02.08.13

Rich, Poor and Chinese—Does Anyone Trust Beijing to...

ANDREW J. NATHAN, SUSAN SHIRK & others

Andrew Nathan:The new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping seems to be making some bold opening moves with its attacks on corruption and the announcement on February 5 of plans to reduce the polarization of incomes.  Does this mean Xi is leading China in new directions? ...

Blog

02.06.13

Airpocalypse Now: China’s Tipping Point?

ALEX WANG, ORVILLE SCHELL & others

The recent run of air pollution in China, we now know, has been worse than the air quality in airport smoking lounges. At its worst, Beijing air quality has approached levels only seen in the United States during wildfires.All of the comparisons to London, Los Angeles, and New...

Blog

02.01.13

China’s Cyberattacks — At What Cost?

JAMES FALLOWS, DONALD CLARKE & others

James Fallows: Here are some initial reactions on the latest hacking news.We call this the “latest” news because I don’t think anyone, in China or outside, is actually surprised. In my own experience in China, which is limited compared with many of yours, I’ve seen the...

Blog

01.30.13

China, Japan and the Islands: What Do the Tensions Mean...

ORVILLE SCHELL, JOHN DELURY & others

How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and...

DISCUSSION

The Other China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into the back of each man’s neck....

The Chinese Miracle?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

VACLAV SMIL

1.Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its importance to the rest of the...