China occupies a central position in addressing many of the challenges associated with North Korea. Politically, China shields North Korea from international pressure and crippling sanctions for its nuclear program and military provocations. Economically, the food, energy, and financial aid provided by China anchor the lifelines of Pyongyang’s survival. Despite the repeated claims by Beijing denying it has determining influence over Pyongyang’s decision making, people widely speculate that what China actually lacks is not the capacity, but the will, to exercise such influence.
These positions of Beijing have for a long time frustrated Washington and Seoul, who are increasingly vocal about how China’s policy damages its own interests. In their view, China’s policy on North Korea is illogical and self-defeating: it enables North Korea’s bad behavior, undermines international norms and non-proliferation regime, tarnishes China’s international image, and poses serious threats to its neighbors and regional stability. Most importantly, China’s policy is counterproductive with regard to its own security interests because it strains China’s relationships with South Korea, Japan, and the United States and contributes to the strengthening of U.S. military alliances in the region.
In their search for a mechanism to engage China and bring Beijing into a more meaningful dialogue about North Korea, the United States and South Korea have raised the possibility of a U.S.-China-ROK trilateral coordination mechanism on the Korean Peninsula. This essay seeks to analyze China’s calculations about such a coordination mechanism and, more broadly, its perception of the future of the Korean Peninsula.
This paper is available here.