What Will North Korea Negotiations Mean for the U.S.-China Balance of Power?


I became deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Korean Affairs in 2001, when tensions with North Korea were rapidly escalating. After the North admitted to having a clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2002, debate within the Bush administration over whether to engage Pyongyang shifted decisively against talks, which were seen as rewarding and even legitimizing the regime. Even working-level New York channel talks with North Korea in which I participated were subject to the new catechism. So it was with a profound sense of irony that I watched President Donald Trump give Kim Jong Un a taste of what it feels like to be treated as a peer by the most powerful leader on earth during their summit in Singapore. In all the time I worked on North Korea during the Bush and Obama administrations, suggesting a summit at the start of negotiations would have been seen as hopelessly naïve or downright heretical.

Suffice it to say, the Trump administration’s new approach to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has shocked official Washington. Gone is the old formula, embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, that requires North Korea’s internal transformation to precede its integration into the international community. The Trump formula takes the opposite and unorthodox course of a reset of U.S.-North Korea relations with a guarantee of regime survival as the path to denuclearization.

In some ways, this could improve prospects for a grand bargain by negating the North’s contention that a hostile U.S. policy justifies its nuclear program, but it is hard to assess the new approach based on the few details the administration has provided. Left to speculation is the important issue of whether South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia will play a role apart from providing aid to North Korea. It is the safest of bets that these Northeast Asian states and former Six Party Talks partners will not accept sitting on the sidelines while Washington and Pyongyang decide the future of the Korean Peninsula.

The end state on the peninsula and how it is achieved will have a profound impact on the balance of power between the United States and China, the dominant and rising powers, respectively, in the Asia-Pacific. Tensions will arise over the structure of regional security. U.S. administrations over the last few decades believed those tensions were manageable because both sides saw constructive relations as vital to their national interests. That shared perspective guided their behavior for four decades.  However, submerged under the facade of constructive relations has been the harsh reality that there was and remains zero strategic trust between the United States and China. This has become more apparent in government reports over the past decade, such as China’s Defense White Paper and the U.S. National Security Strategy, which show that both sides are preparing for potentially adversarial relations in the future.

That future may be here. China has been emboldened by its enormous economic heft, which initially prompted subtle competition, starting with the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Partly in response to the pivot, China in 2013 launched the One Belt, One Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives. The Trump administration has escalated to more overt rivalry, declaring China an aspiring regional hegemon and a “strategic competitor,” expanding official ties to Taiwan, and launching a trade war, while China continues to militarize the South China Sea and move closer to Russia in opposition to important U.S. foreign policy interests.

In this overheated climate, North Korea could become a new arena for U.S.-China competition given both sides’ very different strategic perspectives: No state is more eager than China to see North Korea shift focus from nuclear weapons to economic growth, whether it denuclearizes or not, while no state is more eager than the United States to see North Korea denuclearize. Washington must solve two difficult problems: the North Korean nuclear issue, and the impact that solution will have on the balance of power between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific. To mitigate the risk of drawing the North Korea nuclear issue into U.S.-China competition, the United States should consider ways to constructively engage China in its North Korean denuclearization efforts. Separately, it should seek to build trust and confidence in the military-to-military relationship with China and use the existing framework for economic dialogue to address trade concerns, rather than resort to tariffs and other provocative actions. These efforts could help restore the U.S.-China cooperation, however wary, that characterized North Korea negotiations during the past two administrations and help arrest the current drift toward more overt hostility.

A More Confident North Korea, A More Ambitious China

U.S.-North Korea negotiations today take place under vastly different circumstances from the last serious effort to settle the nuclear issue in 2012. North Korea in 2018 has a tested nuclear capability, and U.S. intelligence officials believe it can fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile. Kim Jong Un is a risk-taker and the first in the Kim dynasty with no experience of the Korean War, setting him apart from his father and grandfather. In 2017, he tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, potentially capable of striking the United States, and test-fired multiple rockets at once. These advances in nuclear and missile programs may allow Kim to shift his focus to the economy to achieve the “great, prosperous, powerful country,” which his father defined in 2008 as possessing nuclear weapons and economic prosperity simultaneously. In 2013, the younger Kim enshrined this as part of official policy, known as the “byungjin line.” Consequently, China and the United States face a more confident North Korea that may believe it has a stronger negotiating hand.

China is also in a much stronger strategic position. It became the second-largest economy in the world in 2010, and has accumulated strategic depth in the Asia-Pacific as a result of its economic weight. While the United States provides Asian states “security goods” in the form of its forward deployed presence and regional balancing, Asian states depend on China for “economic goods.” China is the region’s economic powerhouse, and as a result, Asian states must at least consider, if not accommodate, Chinese interests.

China has no real allies or friends in the sense of relationships based on ideological convergence, but it has convergent strategic interests with Russia in opposing U.S. unilateralism.  Moscow and Beijing are developing closer relations and share a common view of high-stakes foreign policy concerns such as Syria and Iran. China is also developing alternative global economic groupings. One Belt, One Road projects involve 65 countries, and 86 nations have joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including staunch U.S. allies like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. If successful, these initiatives would create a community of like-minded states with shared economic interests, led by China.

Finally, China is once again led by a paramount leader in President Xi Jinping, who has attained the same stature as Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping, unchallenged by peers and People’s Liberation Army leadership, with far-reaching power and potentially a freer hand in decision-making. Since his 10-year term limit was abolished earlier this year, Xi could remain in office indefinitely, giving him the chance to fulfill his ambitious plan to make China a global power between 2035 and 2050.

As such, the North Korea nuclear issue is more challenging than it has ever been, and China has more to lose today if U.S.-North Korea engagement leads to any of the outcomes China fears most: military confrontation, regime collapse, or a Pyongyang inclined towards Washington. Add to that list a potential new fear: If China is unable to protect its interests in North Korea — its sole treaty ally, with which it shares an 880 milelong land border and a history of fighting side-by-side in the Korean War — the failure could diminish China’s status as a regional power and call into question its potential to become a global power.

China’s Strategic Interest in North Korea:  A Stable External Environment for China

China does not regard North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as a threat to itself.  These programs concern Beijing because they cause friction with Washington that periodically raises the specter of a U.S. military confrontation with North Korea. For that reason, China supports the goal of denuclearization, but does not assign the same weight and priority as the United States to achieving denuclearization. Ideally, Beijing would like Pyongyang to shift focus from its nuclear and missile programs to economic growth, and to see the North Korean economy integrated into the regional economy of China’s northeast. Xi said as much during his May summit with Kim in the northeastern city of Dalian. This would boost development in both regions and give China a secure foothold in North Korea or a reunified Korea. However, China has thus far failed to motivate North Korea to make such a shift.

What is more critical to Chinese leaders is a stable external environment. This is key to the Chinese concept of the “period of strategic opportunity.” During this period, which Xi has determined will continue through 2020, prospects for conflict and war are remote because China maintains constructive relationships with other states. This stable environment provides the conditions for China’s continued economic growth and development, which the government has defined as a core national interest. Indeed, the Communist Party’s legitimacy and China’s claim to regional, and eventually global, power status depend on continued economic expansion.

North Korea contributes importantly to a stable external environment for China and therefore to ensuring that the period of strategic opportunity continues. North Korea is permanently in China’s backyard, and Chinese leaders understand geography.  Moreover, without North Korea, China would be encircled by U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, each of which hosts a sizeable U.S. military presence right on China’s doorstep. Consequently, China’s main strategic interests in North Korea are to keep the regime stable, secure, and relatively friendly to China, or at least not inclined towards the United States, and to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Goals: A Failed Effort to Drive Two Neighbors Apart

North Korea policy has always been a diplomatic high-wire act for Washington.  Success requires achieving three simultaneous outcomes: eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, ensure that U.S. commitments to friends and allies remain credible, and deny China the opportunity to use the North Korea issue to advance its broader objectives in the Asia-Pacific. However, this last objective must be balanced against the need to avoid permanently alienating Beijing — there is simply no U.S. interest served by turning a rising China into a hardened adversary. The more contentious nature of U.S.-China relations today makes this latter objective more difficult to accomplish.

As part of its strategy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration attempted to leverage the drift in China-North Korea relations after Kim Jong Un took power to convince China that North Korea was more a liability than an asset. A few well-known Chinese scholars agreed, and even proposed that Beijing dump Pyongyang. However, in the end, the most China would do was side with the United States in adopting new sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, doing enough to show some commitment to pressuring North Korea while also continuing to provide the North the support it needed to survive.

Echoing the Obama approach in some ways, the Trump administration seems to be attempting to split North Korea from China through direct U.S.-North Korea talks that contemplate no clear-cut role for China. The administration has been evasive in responding to questions about China’s role in negotiations, suggesting Washington is attempting to sideline China. If the intention is to exclude the Chinese and promote a China-North Korea split, it is likely to fail. Excluding China has simply incentivized Beijing to revitalize an alliance that had reached a low point after Kim took power in December 2011, a result of Chinese dissatisfaction with Kim’s provocative nuclear advancement and his apparent desire to show some independence from China. Relations were strained to the point that Xi and Kim had never held a summit until this year. In contrast, so far this year they have held three.

The speed of the China-North Korea reset suggests that Kim recognizes he is better off negotiating with the United States if China is in his corner, despite North Korea’s historic general irritation with Chinese interference in its affairs. It also reaffirms North Korea’s strategic importance to China, and underscores China’s determination not to be marginalized in negotiations that could decisively affect Chinese interests. The rapid rapprochement highlights that the need for stability in China’s periphery remains a powerful force in shaping Beijing’s actions and attitude towards Pyongyang.

In the current environment of heightened U.S.-China competition, it is worth considering whether China may value North Korea more because it has a tested nuclear capability.   There is no good way to know if that is the case, since it would not require any change in China’s stated support for denuclearization — North Korea would retain the know-how to rebuild its program even after denuclearization. In War on the Rocks, Mason Richey considers a hypothetical scenario in which the United States accepts a limited North Korean nuclear capability, which then allows China to leverage that capability to contest U.S. dominance in the region. It is an unlikely scenario, but it illustrates how a tested nuclear capability could benefit China. An equally intriguing question is whether Kim seeks to achieve a relationship with Washington that helps him manage Beijing.  Dean Cheng explores this further in his thought-provoking article making the case that Kim is playing a masterful game of expanding North Korea’s relationships to improve negotiating leverage with China.


The United States and China are choosing a path of competition that is drifting into confrontation. They risk the unintended consequence of drawing the North Korea nuclear problem, which bears heavily on the balance-of-power in the Asia-Pacific, into this unpredictable arena of hostility. Both sides should take steps to mitigate that risk. A few key areas merit Washington’s close attention.

First, China should have a discrete role in the negotiations and in implementing any agreement reached. There are many options for doing this. The United States and China could assist in those aspects of denuclearization that involve handling nuclear weapons and components —something only the five official nuclear powers can do.  There may be other possibilities in the area of verification. Assuming the Trump policy contemplates the North rejoining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty following denuclearization, then the period before North Korea completes accession to the treaty could be an opportunity for joint U.S.-China verification activities. This is a version of an idea contained in the 2008 U.S.-drafted verification plan, which proposed participation of the Six Party Talks partners but not replacing International Atomic Energy Agency-led verification. Having verification initially performed by representatives of sovereign states with bilateral relationships with North Korea, rather than by international civil servants from the International Atomic Energy Agency, could raise the costs to Pyongyang of kicking them out if the deal gets wobbly. This could improve chances of sustaining the deal, given the state-run media’s recent emphasis on expanding North Korea’s external relationships.

Second, it is crucial to prevent heightened competition in U.S.-China ties from defining and ultimately undermining the bilateral relationship. Strengthening the weakest leg of U.S.-China relations — the military relationship — would be a good place to start.  Despite a range of military-to-military dialogues, exchanges tend to be more formulaic and less action-oriented than U.S.-China economic dialogues, reflecting the mutual lack of strategic trust. It would be naïve to think that military exchanges could produce open and frank discussions on their own, but meeting on a regular basis establishes relationships that are useful over the long term, and it is important to continue to seek creative ways to build this dialogue. The elevation of the Diplomatic Security Dialogue last year to cabinet level is a good start, with discussions on the South China Sea and North Korea. At the same time, disinviting China to the Rim of the Pacific exercises was a wasted protest of its activities in the South China Sea: It will not change Chinese behavior, and it denies the United States a useful opportunity for information exchange, as Travis Sharp cogently argues. Similarly, words matter. The symbolic renaming of U.S. Pacific Command to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the assertion that China has a “dream of hegemony in Asia,” fuel Beijing’s suspicion that Washington seeks to stymie its rise and invites a Chinese counter-reaction that further corrodes relations.

U.S.-China economic dialogue is in comparatively better shape. There are multiple, action-oriented dialogues to address trade, monetary, and fiscal policy issues, with vocal stakeholders from the business community on both sides invested in solving problems while maintaining stable relations — a resource China is drawing on to contain the new trade war with the United States. The Trump administration should use these existing frameworks to address market access concerns. Washington’s decision to use the blunt instrument of tariffs could be more damaging to multinational businesses than to China and has further fueled tensions in U.S.-China relations.

Third, and above all, Washington must develop North Korea policy with careful consideration of how it could impact the balance of power between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific. The end state on the Korean Peninsula and the path followed to get to that end state must leave the United States in a stronger position in the region vis-à-vis China, without turning a rising China into an adversary. Failure to strike that delicate balance and the resulting potential for active hostility between a dominant and rising power would have ramifications beyond the Asia-Pacific. As history tells us, that is how world orders change.


Ferial A. Saeed is a consultant at Telegraph Strategies LLC, focusing on analysis of political and economic trends and crises for business and government to mitigate risk and exploit opportunity. She is a former senior American diplomat with expertise on North Asia and the Middle East and intricate knowledge of other regions of the world.

Image: Roman Harak/Flickr