A Test for Beijing: China and the North Korean Nuclear Quandary

Bates Gill and Andrew Thompson

China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, set the tone for much of China’s foreign policy in the 1990s when he cautioned Chinese strategists to “keep a low profile and avoid taking the lead.” For better or worse, this axiom has come to define China’s approach to the ominous North Korean nuclear quandary. Although China has significant interests in seeing a peaceful resolution to this troubling situation, it finds itself severely constrained from taking a more open and proactive approach with its neighbor. Moreover, for a range of complex reasons, Beijing’s near-term and strategic priorities differ in many respects from those of the United States, risking increased tensions with Washington over North Korea.

Faced with a host of difficult choices and with a predilection toward a reactive, wait-and-see approach, Beijing has urged caution, diplomacy, and abjuration of coercive measures. But as the standoff of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions becomes more intractable and threatening, Washington and others in the region will expect far more of China. Encouragingly, with the prospects for Washington-Pyongyang-Beijing talks, there are important signs of a more proactive but still low-profile Chinese role.

China’s Priorities

The United States and China share a common set of overarching goals vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula: both wish to see a stable and non-nuclear North Korea that resolves differences peacefully and does not become a fulcrum for regional instabilities more broadly. Considering how to achieve those aims, however, and under what terms exposes divergent priorities and strategic preferences between Washington and Beijing. Put another way, while Washington and Beijing might have similar goals regarding Korean Peninsula security, their respective priorities are ordered differently.

North Korea’s geographic proximity and geostrategic importance require Chinese leaders to take a more comprehensive and strategic approach to addressing Pyongyang’s provocations. With North Korea on its doorstep, Beijing has to place Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions within a calculus of other, often more important concerns in Northeast Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, all of its decisions—good, bad, or worse—carry more weight for China than for the United States. That alone explains much of Beijing’s uneasy caution about intervening in the crisis.

Further complicating the geostrategic picture for Beijing is the fact that the other major player in the ongoing North Korea dilemma—the United States—happens to be the world’s most powerful country and China’s single most important economic partner. Until Beijing clearly understands Washington’s policies and intentions toward North Korea and how China’s interests fit into that picture, it will be reluctant to take bold measures from which it cannot easily retreat, that might weaken its hand in the overall outcome of the current North Korea imbroglio, or that undermine a productive relationship with the United States.

Chinese strategists are sensitive to the Catch-22 problem they face in Washington: China is under pressure to exert its influence over North Korea and is criticized for not doing enough. On the other hand, although Beijing has quietly begun exerting pressure through oil-supply disruptions and closed-door diplomacy, it must be sensitive not to appear too eager to take the lead or too intent on marginalizing the U.S. presence on the peninsula. All the while, Washington has haltingly provided signals on the direction it wishes to go or whether it is prepared to support China’s efforts fully. From Beijing’s perspective, caution and circumspection seem warranted.

Until recently, Beijing had a particularly strong incentive to move slowly on any issue of major geopolitical importance. The current flare-up in the North Korean nuclear impasse has coincided precisely with the just-completed formal transition of power to the new “fourth generation” of leaders in Beijing—a period in which Chinese leaders were not prepared to make any bold moves. Until the new leadership becomes more firmly established and confident in foreign affairs, it is unlikely we will see bold moves in the near term, either.

China’s cooperation with U.S. policies toward North Korea will also be limited by the nearly equal priority it gives to maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula generally and in North Korea in particular. China will aim to prevent rapid changes of the political situation in Pyongyang that would lead to less-than-positive outcomes for Chinese strategic interests. Beijing is concerned with preventing economic or military crises that would lead to thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing across the 1,400-kilometer border into China. There are already an estimated 300,000 North Koreans illegally residing in China in addition to economic refugees continually crossing the border to seek opportunities in China, placing increasing pressure on an already burdened regional economy and posing challenges to central and regional authorities.

Destabilization in North Korea could lead to other scenarios contrary to Beijing’s interests, including the stirring of nationalist passions among China’s ethnic Korean population along the Jilin Province-North Korean border. From a broadly political perspective, Beijing cannot relish the prospect of yet another collapsed communist regime, especially one on its border with which it has traditionally close ties.

Instability and uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula also risks undermining Beijing’s carefully crafted and largely successful two-Korea policy, which aims to steadily assert and establish greater Chinese influence on the peninsula over time. In conducting its two-Korea policy, Beijing must attempt a balanced approach toward the North and South, keeping both within China’s good graces. Currently, it appears that Beijing, Seoul, and Pyongyang share a common interest in giving high priority to a more accommodating, negotiated resolution to tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and Beijing will not want to break up that consensus or force choices between one Korea or the other.

In addition, China has a particularly strong interest in avoiding disruptions in its beneficial economic relations with South Korea. China and South Korea are major trading partners with one another, and South Korea is a significant direct investor in China’s manufacturing sector, creating Chinese jobs, adding value both to Chinese and Korean raw materials, and contributing to China’s export revenues.

Of course, as noted above, Beijing will also want to avoid instabilities on the peninsula for fear of potential military conflict involving the United States—especially one that could potentially place U.S. and allied troops near China’s border or result in political outcomes on Washington’s terms that might be unfavorable to Beijing’s interests.

In seeking to avoid these kinds of instabilities on the Korean Peninsula and within North Korea itself, Beijing will abjure coercion, such as sanctions, embargoes, or the threat or use of military force. Beijing will much prefer a gradual change in North Korea, largely on Chinese terms, to include the introduction of Chinese-style economic and political reforms; the stabilization of North-South relations; and the eventual reconciliation of a stable, non-nuclear Korea within China’s sphere of influence.

The third and more narrow priority for China concerns the realization of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. China recognizes that a nuclear-armed North Korea presents a threat to regional stability and China’s long-term interests. Rather than seeing a direct threat aimed at China, however, Beijing’s concerns focus primarily on potential ripple effects throughout Northeast Asia in reaction to a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Chinese strategists and scientists recognize that North Korean nuclear ambitions might lead to a military strike by the United States, possibly leading to a wider military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development helps drive military modernization programs elsewhere in the region, most notably in Japan. Japan’s steps toward the development and deployment of missile defenses in cooperation with the United States are not viewed favorably in Beijing, especially to the degree those systems might someday strengthen Japanese and U.S.-Japan allied postures during a Taiwan-related confrontation with China.

More broadly, North Korean nuclear- and ballistic missile-related provocations strengthen the case for a more robust and ready Japanese defense and military modernization program, including a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance relationship and, in some circles, a discussion of a more offensive conventional and even nuclear capability—moves that are not in Beijing’s interests. As a recent editorial in a pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper put it, if Japan were to go nuclear in response to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “the negative impact for China would be greater than the sum of India, Pakistan, and North Korea having nuclear weapons.”1

Beijing is also concerned about the implications of North Korean nuclear weapons use and the possible export of nuclear materials to terrorists. Although there are few conceivable scenarios in which North Korea would use nuclear weapons against China, a nuclear exchange, or even the threat of one, between North Korea and the United States would have tremendously negative effects economically, politically, and in security terms for China. Finally, some Chinese analysts will concede that a nuclear North Korea could provide weapons or weapons-grade material to other countries or substate actors. However, this is not seen as a direct threat to China and is not given anywhere near the same degree of importance as in the United States. Moreover, all of these troubling nuclear weapons-related scenarios remain speculative for the moment in Beijing’s view and have yet to drive the narrow nuclear issue to a higher priority status in Chinese strategic perceptions toward the Korean Peninsula.

In sum, Beijing’s priorities with regard to North Korea and its nuclear ambitions derive from a complex and often contradictory mix of long-term geostrategic interests and near-term concerns over stability and proliferation. Beijing seeks to balance its long-term aims of asserting its interests and influence on the Korean Peninsula and maintaining productive relations with the United States on the one hand, while averting instabilities and a nuclear Korean Peninsula on the other. But rather than presenting a cogent and proactive framework for action, these priorities and interests do more to constrain Beijing’s self-perceived room to maneuver. China might wield the most influence in Pyongyang of the major powers concerned, but it is an influence that Beijing feels constrained from exercising fully without great risk. That stance, however, will become increasingly untenable if the North Korean situation evolves toward an even greater crisis.

China’s Policy Response

Faced with a complex and often contradictory situation, Beijing has steadfastly supported a fundamentally conservative and cautious return to the status quo ante, with a strong emphasis on a diplomatic solution, fearful that any precipitous action would only make a bad situation even worse. China’s publicly articulated approach stresses three elements: restart diplomacy and dialogue, avoid escalatory and provocative actions, and assure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Behind closed doors, Beijing stepped up high-level discussions with Pyongyang and Washington, aimed at getting the parties together for dialogue within a mutually acceptable framework.

Reading between the lines of official Chinese policy reveals other important but less prominent elements to China’s approach. First, Beijing initially emphasized the importance of bilateral, face-to-face dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. China recognizes this as a core interest for North Korea and also sees merit in acting as an outside supporter of such dialogue and negotiation but not necessarily as a direct participant.

China, however, appears increasingly open to the possibility of multilateral talks. During the first phone conversation between President George W. Bush and newly appointed President Hu Jintao on March 18, Chinese official media quoted Hu as saying, “The key lies in launching some form of dialogue as soon as possible, especially dialogue between the United States and the DPRK.”2 The phrase “some form of dialogue” appeared to express support for multilateral dialogue and perhaps growing exasperation with North Korea’s insistence on bilateral talks. With the advent of trilateral discussions in Beijing at the end of April, Chinese leaders have taken their farthest step yet toward becoming fully invested partners in a multilateral approach to this issue, but still with some reticence.

Second, in advocating dialogue and the eschewal of provocative steps, Beijing expresses its opposition to applying coercive means such as sanctions or force against North Korea. This view is shared by others in the region, such as South Korea, Russia, and within some Japanese quarters.

Opposition to coercive measures is also Beijing’s diplomatic reminder to the United States to rein in its threatening posture toward North Korea, which, in the Chinese view, is in part responsible for Pyongyang’s belligerence. Many strategists in China point out that the Bush administration’s tougher approach toward North Korea—including Pyongyang in the “axis of evil,” considering nuclear pre-emption contingencies aimed at North Korea, and personalizing attacks against Kim Jong Il—only force North Korea’s back to the wall. In Beijing’s view, further tough rhetoric and escalatory actions by Washington would only lead to more provocative and potentially destabilizing responses by Pyongyang. If escalating confrontation leads to conflict, by design or miscalculation, China will resent U.S. insensitivity to its interests and its inability, as the world’s sole superpower, to chart and lead a negotiated solution.

Third, as signaled in the recent UN Security Council debate on North Korea, Beijing is reluctant to have the North Korean matter raised in that international forum. Beijing fears it could lose considerable influence over the situation if it becomes more “internationalized,” and the nuclear weapons issue—as opposed to the broader political and security issues that concern Beijing most—would be the focus of Security Council deliberations and resolutions.

On the surface, China’s overall position does not differ considerably from the 1993-1994 nuclear crisis in most respects. During the current situation, however, Beijing appears to be taking a slightly more proactive role, at least behind the scenes. This results from considerably changed circumstances from a decade ago. China believes it can play a more beneficial role as a mediator between the United States and North Korea because, of all the major powers to this dispute, Beijing has the best relations with both the United States and North Korea. Importantly, it is in a better position today to place some pressure on Pyongyang in particular and has much to gain with Washington if its efforts bear fruit in gaining greater cooperation from North Korea.

Finally, Beijing might be more concerned than in the past about the outbreak of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, whether brought on by Pyongyang or Washington, and has more to lose should it happen.

Looking Ahead

Given Beijing’s interests and responses thus far regarding the changing nuclear equation on the Korean Peninsula, a mixed picture emerges for U.S.-China relations on this issue. On the one hand, the two sides can fairly say they share common interests in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a peaceful resolution to the issue. Under the surface, however, a number of differences are apparent, and under certain conditions, these differences could increase in the months ahead.

Belatedly responding to the gravity of the situation, Beijing’s top leaders reportedly formed a leadership group on the North Korea crisis. China is increasingly displaying its irritation with Pyongyang through various channels, trying to gain greater cooperation from its recalcitrant neighbor. For example, while diplomatic traffic between Beijing has increased, Pyongyang’s officials are no longer given special treatment. China is also signaling to Pyongyang that it might consider curtailing economic and trade relations if stability is threatened on the peninsula. Importantly, Beijing appeared to play an instrumental role in bringing together the United States and North Korea for tripartite talks in China. Should matters go well, expectations will also be placed on China to offer up various forms of assistance and incentives to keep North Korean reform and compliance on track. Such inputs might include increased energy handouts and a stronger commitment on Beijing’s part to support intrusive verification measures and enforcement options.

If matters go badly, such as a costly conflict on the peninsula or the proliferation of nuclear materials from North Korea to U.S. adversaries, China might be seen as part of the problem. Unlike the current Iraq situation, the North Korea crisis should be of immediate strategic concern to Beijing, and the world will look to China to take an even more proactive and responsible position in assuring a peaceful outcome and the rollback of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.

Interestingly, the Chinese term for “crisis”—weiji—combines characters denoting “danger” and “opportunity.” Fittingly, as Beijing grapples with the current North Korean crisis, China’s hopes for improved relations with Washington, a greater leadership role in the region, and a stable Korean Peninsula will be tested in momentous and difficult ways.


1. Ta Kung Pao, “DPRK ‘Crisis,’ Iraqi War Issue ‘Hot Topics’ at NPC, CPPCC Sessions in China,” March 5, 2003, found in FBIS.
2. Xinhua News Agency, “Hu Jintao Talks With U.S. President Bush Over the Phone,” March 18, 2003, found in BBC Monitoring.

Bates Gill is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Andrew Thompson is a research associate in the same CSIS program.