Chinese President Hu Jintao will begin his swan song visit to the United States on Jan. 18 before he steps down in 2012. High on the agenda of this visit will be North Korea and East Asian security. President Obama is likely to urge his Chinese counterpart to put more pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who created one crisis after another last year.
But China’s major concerns about the aftermath of the North Korean regime's expected collapse have to be taken seriously before the United States can successfully persuade China to be more cooperative on North Korea and other issues. Simply pressuring China to do more without considering its legitimate concerns is not only condescending but also counterproductive.
At the beginning of the new year, the two Koreas struck some conciliatory tones and were able to avoid a war that seemed so imminent just a few weeks ago. Western media cited China’s quiet diplomacy as a major cause of the encouraging restraint on the Korean Peninsula now. Still, the United States has high expectations of China, hoping that China will become a more active and responsible player to help terminate North Korea’s nuclear program and rein in its reckless dictator.
China thinks US doesn't care
A key obstacle to further US-China cooperation on North Korea is the lack of mutual trust between the two powers. US expectations of China notwithstanding, China does not have strong incentives to cooperate, largely because it believes that the United States does not seem to care about China’s interests and concerns.
China is obviously not proud of being regarded as an ally of the Kim Jong-il regime. Within China, scholars and officials have been debating over how to deal with a recalcitrant North Korea that often embarrasses China. There is a growing voice within Chinese academia and the government that China should dump North Korea, since continuing to support Pyongyang hurts China’s international image and does not serve China’s long-term interest.
The fact that China is still behind North Korea is puzzling to many. Yet one has to realize China has its own considerations and priorities. A power transition is under way in Beijing, as Mr. Hu is expected to pass the baton to Vice President Xi Jinping next year. This explains why the Chinese government emphasizes stability and continuity of its policies.
US must allay China's concerns
Before it will fully cooperate with the United States on North Korea, China’s two major concerns have to be eased, both of which derive from the expected eventual collapse of the North Korean regime as a result of heavy international pressure. One is the potential massive wave of North Korean refugees to China. The other is the status of US troops on what would become the unified Korean Peninsula. In addition to addressing these Chinese concerns, the United States must also reach out to the next generation of Chinese leaders for lasting cooperation.
In the event of a sudden North Korean regime breakdown, many North Korean people will attempt to cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Korea, a scenario that the South is anticipating and preparing for now, with support from the United States. An equally likely scenario is that tens of thousands, and possibly even more, North Korean refugees will flood into China, which will create serious economic, social, and political challenges for northeast China.
Have the United States and other Western governments ever considered assisting China in dealing with this humanitarian nightmare? How can the United States and others share the burden with China?
The United States also has yet to explain what it will do with its forward deployment of some 28,500 troops on the Korean Peninsula after Korea’s potential unification. Will the US troops remain in the unified Korea, continue to stay south of today’s DMZ, or withdraw completely from the Korean Peninsula? How about US forces in Japan?
A chance to build mutual trust
The obstacles are clear. China is uncertain about North Korea’s future and US intentions in Asia. China and the United States do not trust each other, and the two militaries perceive one another as the main rival.
The Hu-Obama meeting in Washington will thus be a great opportunity for the two countries to alleviate Beijing's concerns, build mutual trust, reach consensus on North Korea and other key issues, and lay a solid foundation for jointly tackling common challenges in East Asia in the years ahead.
Zhiqun Zhu is MacArthur Chair in East Asian Politics and associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University.