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North Korea – No Strategic Reprieve for Sino-US Tensions

Along with the rest of the international community, Beijing has never welcomed a nuclear capable North Korea, and did not hesitate to swiftly condemn Pyongyang’s attempted thermonuclear test on 6 January, of which it had no prior knowledge. A mutual commitment to North Korea’s denuclearisation has long been perceived as the strategic issue on which China and the US can cooperate. However, in the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test attempt, China seems less optimistic about multilateral solutions to denuclearise North Korea since the broader geostrategic implications may be a more pressing concern.

Washington had hoped Pyongyang’s most recent episode of spontaneous belligerence would be the final straw for Beijing’s tolerance of Kim’s regime and its grand strategy. Following North Korea’s previous nuclear test in 2013, the UNSC issued sanctions within three weeks condemning the test in the strongest terms, with China’s full backing. Washington was especially happy with Beijing’s full cooperation.

This time Washington has urged Beijing to halt its key exports to Pyongyang. Much to Washington’s dismay, however, Beijing’s official policy towards the North remains business-as-usual, despite the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s toughly worded censure following the test attempt.

Efforts to draft a resolution among the UNSC are underway. But when asked whether the US and China were close to an agreement, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, responded “no,” without further elaboration. This affirms that Washington and Beijing are struggling to reach a consensus on a constructive longer-term response to Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test also confirms that sanctions have not been an effective strategy. This validates Beijing’s ongoing skepticism about the credibility of international sanctions and punitive measures. According to Chinese analysts, in 2015 President Xi Jinping concluded that China preferred to have a friendly, nuclear-capable North Korea rather than a hostile, nuclear-capable North Korea.

Beijing’s call for a resumption of the Six-Party Talks on 21 January reflects its preferred strategy of engaging North Korea through dialogue. South Korea’s President, Park Guen-hye, has instead called for five-party talks that exclude Pyongyang. However, China and Russia have stated that they do not support any dialogue concerning North Korea’s denuclearisation which exclude it. Considering the previous round of Six-Party Talks took place in 2008 and numerous efforts to revive them have since failed, fruitful Six-Party Talks are a remote possibility.

Bigger problems for China?

Within hours of North Korea’s attempted thermonuclear test, Rory Medcalf, head of ANU’s National Security College, tweeted, “Just what China does not need – a North Korean nuclear test that justifies Japanese defence modernisation and tighter US alliances.”

While a nuclear-armed North Korea directly threatens China’s national security, Beijing recognises that increased US and Japanese military presence in response to the test would jeopardise its security twofold: by increasing North Korea’s nuclear hostility while simultaneously threatening China’s geostrategic interests in the Asia-Pacific.

In a piece by the state-owned Global Times, China urged that the US, Japan and South Korea must reconsider their “hostile” containment policies if they hoped to end North Korea’s nuclear program. Conversely, on his recent visit to Beijing, US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that Washington would deploy necessary defence systems to protect its Asian allies if China “failed to do more to curb North Korea’s enhanced nuclear capacity.”

Indeed, Washington is already canvassing the possibility of moving more “strategic weapons” to the Peninsula. This follows the US Air Force’s flight of a B-52 bomber flanked by South Korean F-15 and F-16 fighter jets over Osan, South Korea in a show of strength and solidarity with its ally four days after the test. On 22 January, Seoul announced that it will establish a communication link with the US and Japan to share intelligence about North Korea’s ballistic missiles in real time. Beijing and Seoul have made strides in their diplomatic relationship in recent years, but this move deepens Seoul’s ‘embeddedness’ in the US-Japan missile defence matrix, which threatens Beijing.

A recent report by CSIS, commissioned by the US Congress, found that the military balance of power in the Asia-Pacific is shifting against the US. China’s crystallising anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities were highlighted as a major threat to US bases throughout the Western Pacific. The report recommends that Washington deploy additional nuclear-capable SSBN submarines and missile defence systems throughout the Western Pacific.

Beijing seems ever more prepared for Washington’s strategic challenge, however. In December 2015, China allegedly experienced a breakthrough in its military modernisation when the Central Military Commission announced that it had centralised its space, cyber and information forces. The integration of these forces will improve China’s capacity to enforce its A2/AD capabilities aimed at deterring other countries from deploying near its territories.

Perhaps the biggest winner is Japan. Both a burden and a gift, North Korea’s latest provocation reasonably justifies Japan’s ardently expanding military ambitions. Recently, Tokyo has been proactively championing its capacity as a military provider for ASEAN countries.

Before any harder sanctions are imposed against North Korea, it can be safely assumed that the diplomatic resources of the world’s great powers won’t cause its nuclear program to disappear any time soon. China recognises this, and will at least use what military resources it does possess to protect its broader strategic interests while attempting to moderate the hostility of its nuclear-capable neighbour.

Sophie Qin was the June - December 2015 Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)


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