China’s Relations with the Biden Administration on North Korea

Since its inauguration, the Biden Administration has faced a long list of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues and challenges to tackle.
By Yun Sun

This article was originally published in the Korea Economic Institute.

Since its inauguration, the Biden Administration has faced a long list of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues and challenges to tackle. People wonder how high North Korea ranks on the list- probably not among the top five unless another round of provocation forces Washington to refocus attention back on Pyongyang. There have been the renewed debates over diplomatic engagement versus strategic patience, and between a denuclearization approach and an arms control approach to the North Korean nuclear program. Regardless of their position, people seem to agree that enlisting China’s cooperation, especially through enhanced sanctions and strict implementations will be a must for the outcome that U.S. is seeking.

Desirable as it sounds, the path to Chinese cooperation on North Korea at this point is unlikely to be direct or smooth- and it has never been. Although China at the current moment has a strong incentive to seek issues of cooperation with the Biden Administration, the cooperation is motivated primarily by tactical considerations to stabilize U.S.-China relations, rather than by a change of strategic calculations about the Korean peninsula regarding the future power equilibrium in Northeast Asia. China is unlikely to be the first mover vis-à-vis Biden on North Korea. And the transactional mentality that determines its level of cooperation will depend on the offer U.S. is willing to make.

After four years of turbulence, including the last year of “freefall” of U.S.-China relations under President Trump, two perceptions have prevailed in China. The first one is a sense of triumph that China has “weathered the storms” of both the COVID-19 pandemic and of the Trump presidency. The second is that since time is on China’s side, China should avoid confrontation with the U.S. and seek cooperation when possible to save costs and attest to its benevolent rise. The two mentalities jointly determine the Chinese desire to pursue cooperation with Biden, but it also means that Beijing will not accept terms and goals unilaterally dictated by Washington. Indeed, popular issues circulated by Chinese interlocutors for such cooperation have included nuclear nonproliferation issues such as Iran and North Korea, climate change, and cooperation on COVID-19 and post-pandemic recovery.

Read the full article in the Korea Economic Institute.

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