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.


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.


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).