China must be part of Korean peace negotiations to prevent further mistrust

Zhang Baohui says that as Korea peace talks expand to include the United States, the parties involved should consider adding China as well, to avoid a repeat of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 3:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 7:44pm

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi went to Pyongyang on May 2 and met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss the rapidly evolving Korean peninsula security situation. This is the first visit to North Korea by a Chinese foreign minister in 11 years. On May 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged phone calls with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. Finally, to everyone’s surprise, Xi met Kim in the Chinese coastal city of Dalian on May 7 and 8

This flurry of Chinese diplomatic activity indicates Beijing’s growing anxiety over the Korean peace process. While Beijing officially supports the process, many Chinese strategic thinkers are worried that China could be locked out, even becoming irrelevant. Indeed, unlike North Korea, South Korea and the United States, China currently has no formal role in the peace process. This situation will deny Beijing any input in the design of a future Korean peninsular security framework, creating uncertainties for China’s strategic interests.  

The theory of realism in international relations suggests that China should indeed worry about the future of security in the region. Defensive realism assumes that states care greatly about their security because of the anarchic international order. They use alliances to safeguard their security against potential threats from powerful countries. While a divided Korea has resulted in Pyongyang’s alliance with Beijing, and the US-South Korea alliance, a Korea after reconciliation would instead hedge against a powerful China by maintaining US military presence on the peninsula.

Few, if any, South Korean diplomats and security experts suggest that the US-South Korea alliance would end after inter-Korean reconciliation. Therefore, rather than the US military pulling out, it is more likely that a new set of balancing dynamics would emerge, directed against China.  

Indeed, when Moon Chung-in, a special presidential adviser to Moon Jae-in, recently suggested in Foreign Affairs magazine that the US military should pull out of the peninsula after the peace process, the South Korean government quickly rebuked him. Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesperson for the South Korean president, said the US military presence is “an issue regarding the alliance between South Korea and the United States. It has nothing to do with signing peace treaties”.  

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Offensive realism, on the other hand, suggests that anarchy motivates great powers to try to seize any opportunities to establish advantages over their rivals. This logic suggests that the US will not give up any strategic opportunities created by Korean reconciliation that may allow it to establish an advantage over China in the region.

In fact, the US relentlessly pursued Nato expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which should have negated future existence of the alliance. Similarly, Washington may attempt to build a new US-led security mechanism on the Korean peninsula that will make China feel targeted.  

Such scenarios no doubt worry China. To prevent the rise of strategic mistrust and security rivalry in the region, Beijing should be incorporated into the Korean peace process and given a voice in the building of a new security mechanism for the peninsula.  

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Given China’s historical role on the peninsula and its security interests there, it would be wise for Seoul and Washington to bring China into the peace process. The bilateral statement signed by Kim and Moon after the Panmunjom meeting on April 27 does mention the possibility of four-party talks, featuring China, North Korea, South Korea and the US.

As stated by the declaration, Pyongyang and Seoul “agreed to actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China with a view to declaring an end to the [w]ar, turning armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime”.  

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However, China currently believes South Korea prefers a trilateral process with only itself, North Korea and the US. Because the fault lines of conflicts in the peninsula lie between North Korea and the US-South Korea alliance, this trilateral process makes a lot of sense - but not to China.

In contrast, a quadrilateral format should help to address China’s strategic anxiety about the direction of regional security. It would give Beijing a role in designing a new security framework.  

Seoul and Washington should be aware of China’s concerns and be willing to accommodate its legitimate security interests in the peninsula and the region. Such a move could prevent a security dilemma and a new round of strategic competition that would leave everyone feeling less secure.  

Nato expansion after the end of the cold war sowed the seed for US-Russia animosity. The world is still paying a price for a lost opportunity to build cooperation and trust between the West and Russia at the time. That should be a good reminder to stakeholders that accommodating China’s legitimate security interests could prevent the emergence of a new cold war in the region and lay the ground for lasting peace.

Zhang Baohui is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He is the author of China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture: State Security in an Anarchic International Order