Reports on the Sunnylands Summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama last week have hailed progress in Sino-American cooperation on North Korea. That’s fair enough, but to understand what that progress consisted of—and what it did not—it might be useful to step back for a moment and place it in the context of recent history.
For a period of time starting in George W. Bush’s second term, it seemed as though US-PRC cooperation on North Korea policy stood out as, in effect, a poster child of shared national interests and coordinated national efforts. It wasn’t that the two countries had identical goals or priorities; from a strategic perspective they did not. Even so, both insisted on denuclearization of the DPRK and both sought to resolve the matter through diplomacy and avoidance of conflict on the Korean peninsula.
However, with the sinking of Cheonan and the attack on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, China appeared to have made a major policy decision to protect Pyongyang from external criticism and pressure, even at the cost of goodwill in South Korea and complications in Sino-American relations. One presumes this may have had something to do with concerns in Beijing about the fragile state of the North, especially in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008.
Whatever the reason, China’s new course produced President Obama’s reference to China’s “willful blindness” following his June 2010 meeting with Hu Jintao in Toronto, a clear reflection of festering frustrations. Obama understood the importance to Beijing of its relationship with Pyongyang and he explicitly took note of it. But China’s determined unwillingness to hold the North accountable for acts of aggression (at that point only the Cheonan, but to be reinforced five months later with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island) triggered a reaction that affected major aspects of the relationship for some time.
In recent months, since the DPRK rocket launch in December 2012, its nuclear test in February 2013, its formal adoption of enhanced nuclear status as a national goal, and its highly belligerent rhetoric throughout the spring, China has embarked on a noticeably different course.
There is no indication that Beijing has altered its strategic appraisal that the collapse of North Korea and the coming of Korean unification under Seoul’s aegis, allied to the United States, would compromise if not threaten Chinese security.
But what we have seen are indications that China is now willing to take steps in a number of areas to put increasing and visible pressure on the North to rein in its provocative actions as well as its blustery rhetoric about nuclear war, and to recommit itself to the agreed goal of denuclearization.
There may be many reasons for this. For starters, the North’s rhetorical posturing, and to some extent its behavior, under the new leader, Kim Jong Un, has seemed to lack even the level of control seen under his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011. Along with a wholesale series of senior personnel changes, questions have arisen about the aims of the new leadership and the limits on its increasingly belligerent and threatening stance.
Moreover, China’s leadership has also been in transition. Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao in the crucial role of General Secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 and as state president and chairman of the Central Military Commission this past March.
Although the exact mix of factors contributing to recent tensions is not clear to outsiders, in combination, the rising level of concern about North Korean behavior and the change in Chinese leadership appear to have produced some important new PRC decisions. As already noted, this likely does not extend to a new strategic appraisal, as many Chinese academic commentators have called for. But it has resulted in a much more openly critical stance by Beijing, including more meaningful sanctions-related actions that have led to what we have now seen emerge from the Xi-Obama summit at the Annenberg Sunnylands estate in California.
Just what did emerge? First, probably to a degree that has not happened before at that level in Sino-American dialogue, there was a lengthy conversation about North Korea. According to US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the two leaders agreed that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is “a key area for US-China enhanced cooperation.” On the basis of a shared determination that North Korea has to denuclearize and that neither country would accept the North as a nuclear-weapons state, they pledged to work together to “deepen US-China cooperation and dialogue” to achieve denuclearization.
In this regard, said Donilon, the two sides stressed the importance of continuing to apply pressure both to halt North Korea’s ability to proliferate and to achieve the shared goal of eliminating the North’s nuclear program. He highlighted the leaders’ “full agreement” on the need to enforce UN Security Council resolutions to put pressure on the North and, beyond that, to “work together to look at steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the goal” of denuclearization.
Laying down a strategic marker, Donilon placed particular stress on the fact that continuation of the DPRK weapons program would allow the North to become a proliferator, which would present a direct threat to the United States and, as he put it, upend security in Northeast Asia. In this connection, he reported that President Obama had emphasized to President Xi that the United States would take “any steps that we need to take to defend ourselves and our allies from the threat that North Korea presents.”
PRC State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s spoke much more briefly about the subject in his post-summit briefing. What he said was not inconsistent with Donilon’s remarks. Indeed, he reported Xi agreed that the Chinese and American stances and objectives were “in accord,” and that China was willing to “maintain close communication and cooperation” with the US over the issue. But the emphasis was a little different.
First, when describing Xi’s position, Yang said that the Chinese leader reaffirmed the PRC’s persistence in “keeping peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in realizing denuclearization there.” It wasn’t a matter of saying one was vastly more important than the other. Actually, both are vital to Beijing. But even though Xi and others are more willing to raise denuclearization openly as a deep concern touching on China’s own national security, ordering it this way in the formal readout was a reminder that peace and stability on the peninsula are still first-order priorities for China. After all, denuclearization is by any reckoning a long-term enterprise; upsetting peace and stability could occur in short order. So, while China will speak out more directly and apply more pressure, it is not going to knowingly take steps that risk precipitating short-term instability for the sake of long-term denuclearization. (Should instability occur due to internal DPRK factors, that would raise a whole new set of issues beyond the scope of this commentary.)
Like China, the US has also stressed the need for peaceful resolution. That said, one cannot rule out that, at some level of provocative DPRK activity, Xi’s emphasis on maintaining peace and stability could run up against Obama’s point about defending against the North Korean threat.
Second, in addressing a question about possible resumption of Six Party Talks, Donilon limited himself to saying that any talks needed to be “authentic and credible” and “actually lead to a sensible result.” In his (and, obviously, President Obama’s) judgment, “we really haven’t seen from the North Koreans at this point that kind of commitment on the substance of potential talks…to move forward.”
Yang avoided any comment on the North’s intentions, but he underscored the importance of diplomacy. He reported that Xi had said, “China adheres to the principle that the issue be solved through dialogue and consultation and it will continue to make unremitting efforts toward a solution.”
One gathers that the Chinese may feel bilateral dialogue among the various players would be a more realistic first step than a frontal effort to reconvene the Six Party Talks. In that regard, the now-cancelled North-South ministerial meetings in Seoul could have given us some clues about North Korea’s willingness to cooperate with China’s preference. The cancellation might well tell us something as well about how serious the North is—or is not—about alleviating tensions.
In an effort to maximize the chances of success, China will most likely try to get all parties, starting with North Korea, to recommit themselves to the September 2005 Joint Statement of Principles. This might well, in China’s view, not necessarily involve direct reference to denuclearization, even though that is the key element of the Joint Statement. What might appeal to the North about such an approach, some Chinese observers think, is that the Joint Statement contained mutual commitments, not simply a unilateral denuclearization commitment by Pyongyang.
Even there, however, the prospects for success are not encouraging. While the US might be willing to show some level of flexibility regarding the words adopted, and Washington certainly recognizes that actual progress toward denuclearization would have to come in stages, if North Korea continues to insist that it is a nuclear-weapons state and that it will not even discuss denuclearization, much less recommit to the 2005 goals, the discussion is destined to quickly close down.
So where are we in the wake of the Sunnylands Summit? Certainly in a better place than before. It is virtually inconceivable that China will repeat its 2010 performance of trying to protect North Korea from international criticism and pressure in the wake of unacceptably bad DPRK behavior. Rather, China’s concerns about the implications of the North continuing to work on its nuclear program for China’s own security, not to mention concerns about regional security and proliferation, seem to have fostered a new approach. As said earlier, this will be characterized by more open Chinese pressure on Pyongyang at the same time Beijing lays stress on the importance of a negotiated resolution. (Interestingly, China also continues to foster cross-border economic cooperation such as creation of new free trade areas, in part to make money but also presumably to create leverage against Pyongyang.)
Another North Korean missile or nuclear test could lead to yet further adjustments in China’s approach. So, too, could further developments in the DPRK’s production of fissile material. Even more likely to affect Beijing’s attitude, another act of outright aggression against the South could prove to be a turning point in terms of the PRC’s support for the Kim Jong Un regime.
One needs to recognize that less than deft handling of these issues by either the United States or South Korea could also cause heartburn in Beijing. And China will almost certainly urge President Park Geun-hye to “try even harder” when she visits Beijing in late June just as it will urge the US to at least probe the North for any opportunity to resume dialogue. But at this point the onus, even in the PRC’s eyes, will primarily be on Pyongyang to behave responsibly and return to the negotiating table on the basis of previous commitments.
Although China’s strategic suspicion of American intentions has not fundamentally been altered by the Sunnylands encounter (and that never was a realistic expectation coming out of one shirt-sleeves summit meeting), Chinese channels will now be open to discuss with the United States—and with South Korea—more productive “next steps.” This alone is an enormously important development and could open up a prospect, as nothing else to date seems to have done, that Pyongyang could be brought to temper its words and actions, if not necessarily to give up its nuclear program in the near future.
If and as the dialogue begun in California develops into a higher level of mutual confidence between the United States and China, including personal rapport between leaders, one cannot rule out even more significant changes in the PRC policy toward the Korean peninsula over time. For now, however, we should take some satisfaction from the fact that the two presidents have addressed the issue at length, and with apparent candor, and that instructions will go out to their systems to work together in a spirit of greater cooperation and open communication.
 Press Briefing By National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, June 8, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/08/press-briefing-national-security-advisor-tom-donilon.
 Yang Jiechi’s Remarks on the Results of the Presidential Meeting Between Xi Jinping and Obama at the Annenberg Estate, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America, June 9, 2013, http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/zmgxss/t1049301.htm.