As North Korea’s record-breaking missile launches continue to destabilize the regional landscape, it is becoming increasingly important for Korea to seek stronger cooperation with China to address growing aggression from Pyongyang. Getting an accurate picture of how Beijing’s policy toward the Korean peninsula has evolved over the years would be the first step in setting Korea on a course for deeper cooperation with China on North Korea issues. China’s policy toward the Korean peninsula, by and large, refers to its approaches to South Korea and North Korea alike. This article will compare China’s policy toward the Korean peninsula before 2008 – when U.S.-China relations were largely driven by cooperation – with the policy formulated after 2008 when the relationship between Washington and Beijing started falling apart and began veering toward confrontation. An outlook for China’s Korean peninsula policy will also be included in this article to explore viable solutions to advance cooperation between Korea and China.
Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. and China sought to improve their relations, which became known as the détente. China began discussing the matters related to the Korean peninsula with the U.S., and there was a growing linkage between China’s policies toward the Korean peninsula and U.S.-China relations. China during that period viewed advancing cooperation with the U.S. as one of the primary goals of its foreign policy, and as it moved to keep its Korean peninsula policy from hurting the relationship with Washington, Beijing made a series of efforts to deter North Korean provocations even at the expense of maintaining amicable relations with the North Korean regime. As illustrated by a set of measures implemented by then-Chinese government, Beijing wished to keep the momentum for cooperation with the U.S. alive.
As China and South Korea moved to establish formal diplomatic relations in the early 1990s, the Chinese government tried to dispel concerns that the establishment of ties would lead to an isolation of North Korea. For this reason, China had announced its pursuit of a “Two Koreas Policy” and supported the signing of the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea that precludes the ‘unification of the two Koreas by absorption.’ In the wake of the establishment of diplomatic ties with Seoul, Beijing’s approach to the Korean peninsula was mostly guided by its “Two Koreas Policy.” The Chinese government avoided any public sign of tilting toward either South or North Korea, which benefited China and the U.S. alike. Cooperation between the U.S. and China on Korean peninsula affairs reached new heights during President Hu Jintao’s first term in office; Beijing was seen as a responsible stakeholder by the officials in Washington, and China responded by leading a series of multilateral negotiations, known as the six-party talks, to find a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue. China’s pursuit of its “Two Koreas Policy,” augmented by its strong cooperation with the U.S. government, demonstrated that the Chinese government is capable of finding the right balance between the two Koreas.
The ongoing rivalry between the U.S. and China has its seeds in the 2008 global financial crisis. While the crisis dealt a massive blow to the U.S. economy, it accelerated China’s catch-up with the United States. The emergence of rivalry also prompted a visible change in how China approached the Korean peninsula. While President Hu Jintao sought to ramp up the “Two Koreas Policy” during his second term, he shifted the policy’s focus toward providing assistance to the North Korean regime.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping came to power. During his first term, President Xi acknowledged that conflict and competition between the U.S. and China are inevitable, but he tried to keep conflicts with the U.S. from spiraling out of control to avoid a collision course. However, since the Park Geun-hye administration decided to deploy THAAD in 2016, China has viewed the deployment of THAAD as a serious national security threat from the U.S. in the three domains – military capabilities, identity, and geopolitics. And such perception propelled Beijing to view its policy toward the Korean peninsula within the framework of the U.S.-China rivalry.
After President Trump took office in 2017, the trade war between the U.S. and China began to intensify as Trump lashed out against the trade deficit with China and implemented a punishing economic policy targeting China. It seems that Chinese President Xi, who was serving his second term in office in 2018, reached out to Pyongyang to restore China’s relations with North Korea to remain engaged in the political developments on the Korean peninsula. Around that time, seizing the upper hand in the intensifying U.S.-China competition topped Beijing’s foreign policy priority list, and Beijing opted for boasting support for Pyongyang while promoting its “Two Koreas Policy.”
Therefore, what deserves attention is that the contours of China’s Korean peninsula policy over the past years have been generally shaped around its “Two Koreas Policy.” But Beijing’s Korean peninsula policy has shifted from striking a balance between the two Koreas in a period of U.S.-China cooperation to leaning toward the DPRK with escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. Beijing’s support and commitment to deepening cooperation with Pyongyang and its “Two Koreas Policy” will likely continue unless the U.S.-China rivalry marks a watershed for the time being. However, if Pyongyang’s provocations remain unabated, it is also forecast that Beijing will roll back its support to prevent its relations with Washington from spinning out of control due to the uncertainties unfolding on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, it is advised that the Yoon Suk Yeol administration persuade Beijing that striking a balance in its policy toward the Korean peninsula to promote stability on the Peninsula is a matter of urgency.
Based on China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula, the direction of South Korea’s cooperation with China in the coming years can be recommended as follows. First, it is necessary to make certain that advancing South Korea’s national interests hinges on tactfully addressing the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization and other critical issues relevant to the Korean peninsula. It is also important to share this strategic perception with Beijing. Second, promoting stability on the Korean peninsula amid the intensifying U.S.-China competition still tops China’s policy priority toward the Korean peninsula. Therefore, it is advised to seek China’s cooperation in curbing North Korea’s provocations against South Korea. Third, it is recommended to discuss detailed measures with Beijing to establish and operate the cooperation system between Korea and China to fast-track humanitarian aid to mitigate instability in the North Korean political landscape. Fourth, the Korean government needs to forge and advance cooperation with China with a long-term perspective in establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
This paper was published by IFANS. IFANS retains the copyright to this paper and invites readers to share and cite the work with attribution to both the author(s) and IFANS