How North Korean denuclearisation would be good for China’s national security and global standing
Kristian McGuire says that, apart from the military build-up in Northeast Asia to counter the North Korean threat, China’s ambitions of playing a greater global role should motivate it to push Pyongyang towards giving up its nuclear weapons
As Beijing seeks to insert itself into ongoing negotiations with North Korea, it has a complex array of interests and options to consider. Should it help its communist ally push for the removal of US troops from South Korea? Or would it be best to simply continue supporting the indefinite suspension of US-South Korea joint military exercises?
Does Beijing need to be concerned about improving US-North Korea relations? If so, what needs to happen to ensure that the budding relationship doesn’t one day threaten China?
With so many decisions to make and interests to safeguard, Chinese officials certainly have their hands full, especially since they are dealing with a number of stakeholders and fluid circumstances.
Regardless of the manifold challenges facing Beijing, one critical fact ought to be clear by now: it needs North Korea to start taking concrete steps towards complete denuclearisation, and the sooner the better.
Since the 1990s, the US and its allies have responded tit for tat to advances in Pyongyang’s weapons programmes, causing great concern to Beijing, which fears that Washington and its security partners’ efforts to counter the North Korea threat are a stalking horse for a China containment campaign.
One of the most worrisome developments in the North Korea saga, from Beijing’s perspective, has been the deployment of several sophisticated US missile defence assets to Northeast Asia over the past two decades.
In August 1999, less than a year after North Korea fired a Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japanese territory, the US and Japan agreed to conduct joint research on a ballistic missile defence system that could protect allies from the North’s newly displayed weapons.
However, the joint research programme did not lead to immediate action as, just weeks after it was announced, Pyongyang agreed to suspend testing of its long-range missiles – a self-imposed moratorium that remained in place until North Korea’s foreign ministry declared it null and void in March 2005.
Since 2006, when the North resumed its missile tests and commenced testing nuclear weapons, the US and its East Asian security partners have steadily built up their missile defences.
Advanced radar systems and surface-to-air missiles that Beijing believes might be targeted at Chinese ballistic missiles now dot China’s periphery, from South Korea and Japan in the north to Guam and Taiwan in the south. And more such military assets are being deployed to the region as Washington and its allies hedge against the possibility that the Kim regime will not follow through on its commitment to relinquish its nukes.
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If that weren’t enough to unsettle China’s leaders, the North Korea threat has also contributed to a broader military build-up in Northeast Asia. Even before US President Donald Trump began pushing America’s allies to increase their defence spending, Japan and South Korea had already raised their annual military budgets for several consecutive years. And both Seoul and Tokyo have pointed to North Korea’s growing military capabilities as a primary driver of these expanding budgets.
The military build-up on China’s doorstep has been qualitative as well as quantitative. South Korea, Japan and the US are each in the process of producing and fielding powerful new weapons aimed at countering the Kim regime’s nuclear arsenal. If Pyongyang does not abide by its commitment to give up its nukes, it is even possible that the US might eventually redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the region, an idea floated by South Korea’s defence minister last autumn.
Particularly of concern to Beijing is the fact that Pyongyang’s aggressive pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons has motivated the US and its allies to enhance their security cooperation. The North’s growing weapons capabilities have led one-time foes South Korea and Japan to conduct joint military exercises and reach an agreement on military intelligence sharing.
In addition, some countries outside Northeast Asia, such as Australia and Canada, have stepped up their military cooperation with the US and its partners in the region to increase pressure on the Kim regime. The trend towards stronger security ties between the US and its allies, and between the allies themselves, can be expected to accelerate if current negotiations to denuclearise North Korea fail to produce results. This would undoubtedly exacerbate Beijing’s deep-seated fear of containment.
At a time when China seeks to play a greater role on the global stage, it is absolutely crucial that Beijing demonstrate its ability to affect positive change within its own neighbourhood. As long as North Korea holds on firmly to its nuclear weapons, it will be difficult for other countries to accept China as a leader in East Asian security affairs, let alone embrace Beijing’s grand vision for “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”.
While China might not have sufficient power to force North Korea to denuclearise, it does have the wherewithal to completely undermine international sanctions on the Kim regime, a fact that obviously concerns Washington.
However, playing the spoiler is not in China’s interests. If Beijing is to emerge from the North Korea crisis with a greater sense of security and with its reputation as a responsible world leader intact (if not greatly enhanced), then it must do all it can to ensure its ally denuclearises once and for all.
Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. [email protected]