Beijing’s leadership offers the best chance of resolving the North Korean missile crisis
Tom Manning says though China’s leverage over Pyongyang is likely to have been overestimated, it remains the leading actor in this crisis – Asia’s most powerful nation has the credibility and diplomatic skills needed to step up
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s brazen testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile was widely condemned by the international community as reckless and provocative. The action was clearly intended to taunt the United States and further intimidate both South Korea and Japan. Years ago, North Korea seemed peripheral to China – now, it has become China’s principal external challenge and central to China’s image as a leader on the Asian and world stage.
The situation is highly unstable and requires immediate attention. China has wisely emphasised a de-escalation of tensions, and yet numerous factors suggest that will be impossible unless Beijing plays a leadership role in bringing the parties back to the negotiating table. Kim is considered unpredictable and dangerous, and US President Donald Trump is bombastic in his own way, so no one really knows how long this stand-off will last. Without China’s help, neither side is likely to back down.
Watch: North Korea claims successful test of intercontinental ballistic missile
China’s relationship with Pyongyang is complicated and dates back to the early days of the Chinese Communist Party. The long-running relationship would suggest a ready means for dialogue, but the current era, which began with Kim’s ascent to the top post, has been marked less by warmth and camaraderie than by caution and frustration. In short, China’s leverage is likely to be overestimated in the West – and yet, relative to other actors in the equation, it remains best equipped to engineer a peaceful resolution.
The G20 summit last week should have been a venue for voicing concerns and pressing for assistance on this key issue. Given the presence of the five nations which participated in the last attempt at negotiation with North Korea, known as the six-party talks, which began in 2003 and ended abruptly in 2009, the summit presented a prime opportunity to achieve a new meeting of minds. Unfortunately, the meeting did not address the issue in a robust manner. Despite being critical of China’s perceived ineffectiveness, the US instead allowed its preoccupation with Russia to distract it from its more important mission. Regrettably, the discussion with China on Saturday was modest and failed to break new ground.
It is worth remembering that all five nations – China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US – share a strong interest in avoiding military conflict on the Korean peninsula and should support steps towards both defusing the crisis and ultimately bringing about the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. A war on the Korean peninsula is in no one’s interest – a first-strike military attack by the US would lead to an instant counter-attack and large-scale loss of life in both South Korea and Japan.
Collateral effects would also be costly – fleeing North Korean refugees would strain China’s resources, and Chinese citizens working in North Korea could be injured or killed in military exchanges, which could give rise to sudden and hard-to-control animosity across China. The initial anger would focus on the US, but the situation could easily become unwieldy and place Beijing in an untenable position of needing to show restraint while also needing to flash its strength in order to protect its image at home. If the US forces somehow succeeded in bringing about regime change, eventual occupation of North Korea by American and South Korean military forces would redraw the power structure of North Asia in ways unhelpful to China.
Importantly, China can provide the leadership required to address this crisis before it grows even worse. First, China enjoys credibility with all the countries in question, including North Korea, even if its actual influence is somewhat overestimated.
Second, as the most powerful nation in Asia, China has a perfect opportunity to step forward as a thoughtful, responsible steward of the region’s stability and prosperity – a demonstration that will not be lost on China’s neighbours, who are assessing China’s influence and its impact on them.
Finally, China’s skills at diplomacy and collaboration fit well with the situation, which requires deft handling.
One option China might choose is to suggest that the original parties to the six-party talks return to the table to pursue a multistep process of de-escalation, cooperation and development. This is a positive action that could relieve tensions and ensure that all actors develop a common understanding of the situation.
In a first step to de-escalate the situation, China could request that North Korea stop further provocation of the US by halting additional missile tests, while also asking the US and South Korea to refrain from further joint military exercises. Getting North Korea to see the wisdom of this request will require wielding both a carrot and a stick. This means a balance of offering rewards and threatening sanctions, involving just China or alongside the other nations. Whether the countries will accept the idea of providing inducements to a rogue and noisy neighbour will prove a major obstacle and a test of Chinese diplomacy.
Diplomacy can defuse the Korean crisis – just as it did the Cuban missile crisis during the cold war
Cooperation could be the essential second step of China’s approach – not only because China rarely wants to act alone, but because this challenge is too big for any one actor and requires collaboration. China will certainly enlist the help of Russia, a good friend in matters of this kind, and, conveniently, a counterweight to the US. Of course, restarting multi-party talks would be the central theme in a Chinese proposal, but initiating the idea with the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia is the first and most achievable step. Arguably, without this platform, very little bargaining can be achieved with North Korea.
The third step could easily involve China’s most accomplished skill – economic development – which North Korea needs desperately. It would be reasonable to expect China to propose a medium-to-long-range economic development plan to help the North Korean economy, possibly defining an enlarged demilitarised region, as a first step, supplemented by the creation of special economic zones, which proved hugely successful to China’s own development. The restarted six-party talks would then be likely to identify strategic industries in which companies from the five nations would eventually participate as part of a tailored Marshall Plan for North Korea.
China holds the key to resolve this difficult situation – if it chooses to use its diplomatic skill and economic capability, and its ability to provide enlightened leadership in a crisis of this importance.
Tom Manning is an adjunct faculty member of the University of Chicago Law School, a strategy adviser, corporate board director and long-time resident of Hong Kong