ALONGSIDE China’s rise, neighborhood diplomacy has been a priority in its foreign diplomacy. Northeast Asian nations are an important part of this strategy. Throughout Northeast Asia, economic development has long been blighted by political and security conundrums. Formulating a strategy targeting this region not only helps solve the North Korean nuclear issue, but also serves China’s long-term interests and brings more benefits to other regional stakeholders. Given the complexities of this region, China’s Northeast Asia policy consists of approaches toward Russia, Mongolia, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. China’s relations with Mongolia are not as intractable as its ties with the other three parties.
Among the Northeast Asian nations, Russia is the only comprehensive strategic partner of China, and the two ushered in a new stage of the partnership in May 2014. Pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy is a common choice of major developing countries. Though Beijing and Moscow have reached a high degree of security cooperation, they are not allies, nor do they intend to forge an alliance in the future. Becoming rivals against the world’s sole superpower and its allies is a strategic mistake, as well as a violation of China’s principle of maintaining strategic friendly relations with the US since Beijing adopted its reform and opening-up policy in 1978.
In addition, alignment means the formation of a military alliance, but who would be in the dominant position is a thorny issue. Again, Moscow’s strategic alertness toward Beijing will not fade even if they ally with each other. And since a large-scale conflict between China and the US can be primarily caused by the Taiwan question, the alliance between China and Russia cannot prevent such a conflict from taking place.
The Yamato people, the dominant native ethnic group of Japan, hold a less usual philosophical view of seeing others as the center, which determines that their diplomatic principle of teaming with the most powerful country has not changed for thousands of years. It is expected that in the foreseeable future, Tokyo will seek to return to a state of normalcy through a deepened alliance with Washington by using the excuse of the “China threat.” Therefore, Beijing does not need to pin high hopes on its Tokyo policy. Maintaining economic and cultural ties and readjusting bilateral ties until the two sides see a larger gap in strength might be the practical path for now.
The key to the security of Northeast Asia lies in the Korean Peninsula, and in particular the North. It is worth noting that a secluded, backward North Korea has blocked the development of three provinces in Northeast China, exerting a rather negative influence that may well go beyond the advantages brought about by the so-called buffer zone. It’s a pity that the stalemate, one of the multiple legacies of the Cold War, still exists on the peninsula, and the later-developed nuclear issue has complicated the scenario.
Constant security threats from the US and South Korea, drastically reduced support due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China’s reform and opening-up policy and the establishment of diplomatic ties with the South have all prompted the North to develop nuclear weapons to defend its national security.
Washington holds that Pyongyang has the intent to strike the US mainland and therefore it must not possess the capacity to conduct nuclear strikes. Its bottom line lies in excluding the possibility of being hit by the North.
North Korea is capable of striking China but has no intention to do so. But as China objects to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea, out of consideration that it might break the strategic balance between Beijing and Washington, it has every reason to oppose the development of nuclear weapons that may threaten its security landscape. China must give greater priority to the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula than preventing war. But over the past year, China actually put prevention of war before denuclearization, which was an important condition for the North to develop nuclear weapons.
However, Beijing cannot persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons on its own. Now that North Korea’s security concerns must be addressed, China’s influence is not enough to make it abandon its nuclear plans, and joint maneuvering from China and the US may further provoke the isolated nation to take risks. A relatively feasible solution might be for the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to render security guarantees and economic assistance to the North on the condition that it will give up its nuclear development plan.
Contradictions and lack of policy coordination among major powers provide the external conditions for Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons. Consequently, as long as they reach consensus that the North must give up nuclear weapons but has the right to security guarantees, a UN Security Council resolution will be the most effective approach to the Korean Peninsula issue.
Beijing should encourage Seoul to play a bigger role in solving this issue while preventing their ties from being shocked by it. The Moon Jae-in government must define the bottom line of the Sunshine Policy and should not, without any premise, object to addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear issue in non-peaceful means.
[The author is director of the Department of International Strategy, the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. [email protected]]