The North Korean announcement of a successful thermonuclear weapon test has been met with increasing scepticism over the last few days. Mounting evidence from international agencies now seemingly points towards the weapons test representing an increased yield from traditional devices that were tested in the past. This provocation has not only led to strong comments from the United States (U.S) in terms of sanction threats; it has taken China by surprise as well. In October last year, China sought to calm tensions within the region by using its growing regional influence to seek assurances that North Korea would halt any potential new testing. This betrayal against China has culminated, unsurprisingly, with Chinese officials using some of their harshest language against North Korea to date; claiming that “China will firmly push for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” However, while global leaders are now beginning to focus on sanction responses, this latest gamble by North Korea not only presents the U.S. and China with a new opportunity for security cooperation, but also provides the Trilateral Summit (China/South Korea/Japan) an opportunity to cooperate deeper on security matters.
Recent U.S.-China flashpoints around the South China Sea have created increasing friction between the two states on matters of security. Yet North Korea’s growing arrogance now calls for both states to find ways to reinvigorate security cooperation. In September, China once again called for the resumption of Six-Party talks. This was met by comments from Secretary of State John Kerry in October that hinted at the possibility of resuming the talks in the New Year. The possibility for a new round of talks must now be taken seriously by all parties. Falling back on easy “go-to” sanction prescriptions or finding ways to alter existing sanctions will ultimately achieve nothing of real significance. A new round of discussions not only helps bring the two regional powers back to the security table around a common security issue, it will also help the U.S. and China to temper increasingly harsh security rhetoric on a number of further security issues like the South China Sea and Cybersecurity. The ripple effect of increasing cooperation should not be taken so lightly by foreign policy officials, cooperation in one area of global security has the potential to open doors to collaborations on many other security-policy matters. However beyond the U.S.-China relationship, North Korea’s actions also provide China, South Korea and Japan with the ability to deepen security relationships.
The Trilateral Summit in November last year placed the ‘North Korea problem’ on the top of the summit agenda. Increasingly, all three states have found a cohesive and common political ground when it comes to nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. The latest test by North Korea offers South Korea and Japan a two-pronged strategy. Both states now have the ability to use China’s increasingly harsh statements against North Korea as a tool to encourage China to react stronger in a diplomatic sense. Furthermore, both states can also use the recent statements by China to show a willingness to work closer with China on security issues. Increasingly close trilateral relations will not only provide opportunities to resolve the North Korea issue but can potentially also help to spur diplomatic cooperation over security flashpoints like ADIZ. However there is one large stumbling block that China must address, and which has contributed to regional tensions, that being the perceived need for North Korea to remain as a “buffer state”.
China’s reliance on North Korea as a “buffer state” is the product of history and contemporary strategic concerns. These historical concerns and the uneasiness within Chinese foreign policy circles at the prospect of a U.S. ally (South Korea) potentially on its border one day should the north fall to the south, has meant China has always sought to temper its and the international response toward North Korea. This new round of North Korean testing must now be used by those within the Chinese policy and academic circles to seek foreign policy changes within China. The usefulness of North Korea in regards to China’s self-interest has now tipped over into a detrimental phase. Chinese foreign policy must seek to move away from the perceived benefits of a “buffer state” to focus on the benefits of sustained and genuine multilateral cooperation.
Charles Bryant is a recent Master of International Affairs graduate from the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University.
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