Secretary Clinton’s Visit to China and Planning for Future Cooperation on Afghanistan and North Korea

February 17, 2009

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting four Asian countries this week, including China. Speculation about the issues that she hopes to discuss in Beijing has become a major topic for the Chinese media. Whatever Secretary Clinton and the Chinese leadership will talk about, it seems sure that the China-U.S. bilateral relationship – one of strategic cooperation – will develop further during the Obama administration.

Secretary Clinton said before her journey that Asia countries – including China – are indispensable to the U.S. in confronting global issues. She discussed this fact more deeply during her confirmation hearing, noting that while the U.S. can not solve all of the world’s problems on its own, nor can the world solve its problems without American participation. In Central and Northeast Asia, cooperation between China and the U.S. is especially important, though Washington should not overemphasize China’s potential role. Chinese participation may be vital in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, for instance, but the key players in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis are North Korea and the United States.

In Afghanistan, China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, led by China and Russia) can support the U.S. and NATO forces as they work to stabilize the country. In fact, China and Russia recently expressed their willingness to help the U.S. and NATO, as stability in Afghanistan is in the interests of China and the Central Asian members of the SCO. Indeed, China is enhancing its free training of Afghan military personnel and law enforcement, and intelligence sharing. China and SCO are also ready to work with the Afghan side to fight terrorism, organized crime, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. China has good experience in these areas and, perhaps most importantly, the Karzai government welcomes China and the SCO to take part in the reconstruction. These efforts require broad international cooperation – not just limited efforts by the U.S. and NATO.

On the North Korea issue, although China is playing a crucial role, it is unclear that Beijing can help the U.S. to convince North Korea give up its nuclear program. Certainly, the Six-Party Talks could not go on without China, but Washington should not imagine that China is the key player in the talks. Although all the interested powers in the region share a basic interest in maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia, they do not necessarily share a common view on how to manage a possible major crisis within North Korea. China and Russia, for example, do not think they are directly threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons, though they do express concern over the situation in order to serve their own greater interests. This is quite similar, in fact, to the American need to convince Pyongyang to denuclearize in order to protect its Asian allies.

While China cannot be considered the essential actor in the denuclearization drama, it may play a central role in the event of a “sudden collapse” in North Korea. First, China may have to handle the huge scale of refugees pouring into China. This is not necessarily a humanitarian concern for Beijing, but a strategic one: China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture shares a 556 km border with North Korea and an influx a refugee would be a certain threat to stability. Second, China can supply assistance to help the humanitarian crisis inside a collapsed North Korea, and can take preventive actions along with the U.S. and South Korea to prevent or reduce turmoil and human casualties. Third, China would desire to secure North Korea’s nuclear facilities – the U.S. or South Korea may have a difficult time if they attempt to do so themselves. Fourth, in case a transition in Pyongyang goes peacefully, China could try to establish a working group to connect with the new North Korean leadership; this may help the U.S. to better understand the new North Korea.

Obviously, Secretary Clinton will not discuss North Korea on this level of detail, but she should at least be open to hearing the opinions and perceptions of her Chinese counterparts during her visit to Beijing.