The U.S.-China Summit and the Korean Peninsula: Is Cooperation Possible?

Many issues will confront the United States and Chinese leaderships during the state visit of President Hu Jintao to Washington on January 19. The Korean peninsula belongs at the very top of the list. The risks to peace and security could hardly be greater than in Korea, and President Obama hopes to test China’s readiness to limit the dangers of an acute crisis that neither country seeks.

Hu’s visit affords a rare opportunity for both leaders to discuss these issues in candid and concentrated fashion. But is China prepared for such a conversation? The answer to this question represents a major test of China’s readiness to work with the United States on matters central to the interests of both countries.

President Obama entered office committed to concerted action among the major powers on the looming challenges to international peace and security. China was the key country he sought to enlist in East Asia, with North Korea quickly representing the primary test case. In April 2009, Pyongyang (in open defiance of a prior UN Security Council resolution) undertook a failed attempt at a long-range missile launch, followed a month later by its second nuclear detonation. China responded vigorously to those provocations, joining the United States and others in additional UN-mandated sanctions.

Beijing’s record during 2010 was far more disconcerting. In March, North Korea sank a South Korean corvette, killing forty-six sailors. In November, it revealed the existence of a facility for enriching uranium, providing Pyongyang an additional prospective path for fissile material development apart from its existing plutonium capability. Later in the same month, it shelled a coastal island, killing South Korean soldiers and civilians. Yet China declined to call Pyongyang to account for these outrages, and sought to protect North Korea from international opprobrium.

China’s responses diverged sharply from those of the United States, South Korea and Japan. It talked the talk of major-power cooperation but it did not walk the walk, even in the face of direct threats to regional stability and security about which Beijing has professed repeated concern. Moreover, Beijing openly chastised Washington for undertaking enhanced defense cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo to inhibit additional provocations by Pyongyang.

South Korea has stated that it will no longer tolerate future provocations by the North. It also voices open doubt that Beijing will restrain Pyongyang. South Korean retaliation for additional North Korean actions is no longer a question of if, but of when. Even if Seoul responds in a focused and proportionate manner, such retaliation creates the danger of a cycle of escalation.

The Korean Peninsula represents the immediate test case for Hu and Obama to “reset” U.S.-China relations and address questions of immediate concern to both countries. The two presidents must undertake three steps to restore genuine cooperation.

First, they must formulate a common definition of the Korea problem. There is a disconcerting trend among Chinese strategic analysts to blame the United States for stoking recent tensions, purportedly to contain the rise of China, or to exploit recent events to reinforce the U.S. strategic position in Northeast Asia. But North Korea is the defining source of the mounting tensions in Northeast Asia, both through its nuclear weapons development and through its military actions. Ludicrous as Chinese views are, they suggest an inability or unwillingness to grasp present realities, ones which threaten Chinese interests as much as those of the United States.

Second, Hu and Obama must acknowledge that they have common or at least overlapping interests regarding Korea. There have always been differences between Washington and Beijing, but these differences are more matters of degree than of kind. China cares most about stability on the peninsula and preserving a strategic buffer. The United States has focused primarily on the dangers of North Korean nuclear development for proliferation and regional stability. But recent developments should remind Beijing and Washington that Pyongyang’s actions pose a direct risk to the core interests of both states.

Third, based on a shared understanding and recognition of convergent interests, the two presidents should devise a plan for concerted action. This could include bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, if Pyongyang demonstrates through word and deed that it is serious about addressing the problems that it has created. But any plan will also require steps to constrain North Korean actions and to encourage a more forthcoming approach by Pyongyang in any prospective negotiations. These cannot be quick-fix solutions, such as the recent North Korean unilateral proposal to redefine the maritime limit line in Pyongyang’s favor.

In seeking China’s cooperation the Obama Administration must not go behind the back of South Korea. The administration’s close collaboration with Seoul over the past two years indicates that it will not. At the same time, China needs to repair its reputation in South Korea, which has been severely damaged by its acquiescence to North Korean risk-taking. Beijing’s continued role of honest broker -a role that Seoul has openly encouraged in the past- will be at increased risk if China is prepared to tolerate North Korean behavior, and if Pyongyang does not face consequences for its actions.

The stakes on the Korean peninsula could not be higher. If Presidents Hu and Obama are able to return to the cooperation of 2009, their joint efforts will impart to Pyongyang the clear costs of its actions, as well as inhibit additional risk taking by North Korea. It will also demonstrate that U.S.-China cooperation on crucial regional security issues is possible. If the leaders fail in these efforts, the dangers of 2010 will continue and deepen, and the risks of a wider conflict will grow.

In an early December telephone conversation with President Obama, Hu Jintao characterized the security of the Korean peninsula as “very fragile,” with a continuing threat of escalation and “even in the loss of control.” As the two leaders meet face to face in the White House, President Hu needs to be fully prepared for a strategic conversation that the United States has long sought.