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Apple of discord between China and the U.S.: North Korea

Heated debate on podium co-hosted by MERICS at this year’s MSC

The continuing nuclear arms build-up of North Korea is creating tensions between China and the U.S. This became clear at a roundtable co-hosted by MERICS at the Munich Security Conference. Both countries already have to deal with several lines of conflict, including the tensions in the South China Sea, the Taiwan question, IP theft, and mutual trade barriers. But since North Korea conducted a first hydrogen bomb test in January, followed by the launch of a long-distance missile in February, Pyongyang’s nuclear policy is increasingly burdening the relationship between Washington and Beijing. The situation was “extremely dangerous” for the region as well as for the U.S.-China relationship, said Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the discussion. An exchange between Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the National People's Congress, and Robert Corker, the Republican Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, illustrated the difficult situation. 

The U.S. senator expressed severe doubts that China wanted to play an active role as an intermediary in the conflict with North Korea: “China stifles the UN Security Council from being able to put sanctions in place.” A cooperation with China on this issue in the UN Security Council was not going to happen. 

China was “unwilling to join friends and allies in trying to push back” North Korea. “I‘m constantly frustrated why the United States is involved in this issue with North Korea, when the 90 per cent solution lies with China.”

He accused China of following economic interests: “90 per cent of North Korea’s trade is with China. If China chose to work with others in an international order to deal with this, then certainly it could be dealt with and ended. But so far they have chosen to focus on internal stability instead of what I would say, playing the rightful role.”

The U.S. ambassador to the UN has been working to put in place sanctions, “but China is not serious and not interested”. Corker even accused Chinese companies of proliferating “very sensitive technologies to countries like North Korea and Iran”.

Fu Ying rejected Corker’s assertion that China was not willing to act in the conflict: “I hope the UN resolution can be worked out soon”, she stressed, referring to a constructive conversation between U.S. State Secretary John Kerry with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Munich. According to Fu, China is working on bringing the six party talks back to life. In 2009, North Korea had pulled out of these talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution in the conflict over Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program. 

The Chinese politician also called for the U.S. to change its behavior: “You want us to work with you in UN, in the meantime you are working with your allies, setting up an equipment which covers bigger territory in China than North and South Korea put together. So it’s very twisted, the relationship.” Fu demanded a new approach on the issue: “This world needs to change.”

Alluding to the recent cooling down of relations between China and North Korea, MERICS director and roundtable host Sebastian Heilmann asked Fu if China had lost control over its neighbor. She retorted: “That sounds very Western, losing control. … That’s not the way China thinks, we don’t control countries, we don’t want to be controlled.” China firmly opposed “the nuclearisation of North Korea”, said Fu, before directly challenging Corker:

“North Korea is not developing weapons, nuclear weapons, because there is a threat they fear from China. When Senator Corker was in Beijing, do you remember, I asked him, why can’t you just tell the North Koreans you are not coming to invade them, you are not going to do anything. Why can’t you ever say it?”

A verbal exchange of blows ensued:                

Corker: “We’ve been there since 1953 with 28,500 troupes … it’s just not going to occur.” China was “relinquishing the responsibility to deal with the nation that is developing a nuclear weapon in a situation where China has the most ability to affect this in a positive way.”

Fu: “You mean China could stop them.”

Corker: “I think China could solve the issue with North Korea very rapidly … but … I think what you’re saying is, at least for the near term, China is not going to play a significant role.”

Fu: “I know, I said I know the United States would love to franchise this issue to China … but we cannot play your role. Every country has its own role, its own responsibilities for good reason. … So, we are frustrated with each other.”

Finally, Kevin Rudd tried to bring the two sides back together: “I’m not frustrated with either of you.” Then he urged all sides “to reimagine this problem fairly quickly”, since “we are in a really bad situation”. The amount of nuclear material accumulated by North Korea and the sophistication of its rocketry could become a serious problem for the economy and the security of the region. “If diplomacy doesn’t find a way through here, then I think we are steering down the railroad to something very, very ugly, and very unpleasant.”

  • Stiftung Mercator
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