This week, the Chinese government ordered North Korean companies operating in China to shut down, the latest sign of rising tensions between the two longtime allies. Those tensions could soon get even worse if, as many observers anticipate, North Korea carries out some provocative action—another nuclear test or missile launch perhaps—during the 19th congress of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing next month.
There’s a widely held view in the United States that Chinese pressure has been the key missing factor preventing the resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis. “China could easily solve this problem!” as President Trump has put it. The case is undoubtedly overstated, but it’s not totally wrong. China does have a decades-old defense treaty with its Cold War ally and serves as its economic lifeline, accounting for 90 percent of the isolated country’s trade. While China is certainly worried about North Korea’s nuclear program, it’s even more worried about what could happen if the North Korean regime collapsed, bringing a massive humanitarian crisis and possibly U.S. troops right up to its border. At this point, it’s probably too late for even China to persuade Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear program, but it’s undoubtedly true that for years, China has been reluctant to put too much pressure on Pyongyang.
In Beijing, however, the notion that the North Korea crisis is China’s fault seems bizarre. There, the prevailing narrative is that it’s American recklessness, not Chinese reluctance, that turned North Korea into a nuclear threat.
At a meeting with a group of American journalists, including myself, in Beijing last week, Counselor Yu Dunhai of the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the idea that China could resolve the crisis.* “The key is not in our hands,” he said. “China certainly can play a big role, because we are the closest neighbor and have a lot of influence, but only China can’t solve the problem. The key lies with the U.S. If the two sides [the United States and North Korea] do not talk, China can do nothing.”
Yu suggested that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons because it “feels very insecure. They think a nuclear bomb is the solution.” That insecurity, he argues, results from the heavy U.S. troop presence in South Korea and U.S.-led military exercises in the region.
In Yu’s view, “we almost achieved the denuclearization of the peninsula during President Clinton’s administration,” but progress was derailed when George W. Bush labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” and invaded fellow axis member Iraq, convincing Pyongyang of the necessity of developing a nuclear deterrent. He also put some blame on the Obama administration for its lack of engagement with the problem. “During Obama’s administration, they used the term ‘strategic patience,’ and North Korea’s nuclear program developed very fast during that time,” he said.
“China feels very frustrated,” says Tong Zhao, a nuclear policy analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. Tong suggests that Chinese leaders believe “the crisis is getting worse because the U.S. won’t listen to us. U.S. provocations only make North Korea more paranoid.”
There’s some truth to this storyline, but also some holes in it. Kim Jong-il sought nuclear weapons years before Bush invaded Iraq. And the North Koreans’ conventional arsenal and their relationship with China have been an invasion deterrent since the 1960s: They don’t need nukes for self defense.
China’s statements, including its calls for calm as the war of words between Trump and Kim has escalated this month, often have the tone of an exasperated adult trying to separate two brawling grade-schoolers. In fairness to China, the two current leaders of the United States and North Korea have made that tone pretty easy to maintain.
If a full Chinese embargo on North Korea is seen as the golden bullet in Washington, the Chinese equivalent is a scenario known as “double suspension”: North Korea agrees to suspend its nuclear activities, while the U.S. agrees to suspend military exercises with the South Koreans. This is very unlikely to happen, as Yu acknowledges. “The U.S. says that Military exercises is our legitimate right,” he says. “So there is no way forward.”
The argument that American military activities in East Asia are what has caused the Korean crisis is awfully convenient for China, given that China would love for the U.S. to stop doing that. “To some extent, China shares North Korea’s suspicion of U.S.,” says Zhao. “Both believe the U.S. is a troublemaker and a hegemonic power.”
What we’re left with is a dilemma in which both China and the United States believe the North Korea situation is principally the other country’s fault. In that sense, the crisis can also be viewed as just part of a larger disagreement between the world’s two most powerful countries, one with potentially very dangerous consequences for both countries and everyone else.
The U.S. sees China as narrowly pursuing its own self interest at the expense of the international order, willing to support or at least tolerate unstable and despotic regimes and put other nations at risk if it aids the Chinese rise to economic and military power. China, meanwhile, sees all of America’s talk of a rules-based international order, maintaining global security, and promoting human rights (or at least the talk of those values before Trump’s reign) as a flimsy cover for maintaining its own global preeminence and keeping other powers, namely China, down.
The mutual suspicion behind these views is making it harder for the two countries—which, in truth, are both partly to blame for the North Korea crisis—to work together to solve the problem. It’s a disagreement that could be very dangerous for both countries going forward—and for everyone else.
Update, June 23, 2018: The meeting with a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was part of a trip arranged and paid for by the China–United States Exchange Foundation. Slate’s policy is to disclose when reporting is done as part of funded trips, and it was an oversight not to do so at the time this post was published.