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U.S. and Chinese officials engage in counterproductive blame game over North Korean nuclear test
After North Korea tested its fifth nuclear weapon, U.S. officials reiterated pressure on China to use what they perceive as its leverage over North Korea to stop the nuclear program. Though President Barack Obama’s statement did not mention China, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter did. “I’d single out China. It’s China’s responsibility,” Carter said according to The Wall Street Journal. “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and not the direction things have been going,” Carter said. / Chinese officials condemned the test, but a Foreign Ministry spokesperson also responded in kind to Carter’s remarks: “It is the U.S. who should reflect upon how the situation has become what it is today, and search for an effective solution. It is better for the doer to undo what he has done. The U.S. should shoulder its due responsibilities.” / North Korea is also likely to be high on the agenda as Japan’s new defense minister visits Washington this week.
ANALYSIS: Carter’s statement and the Chinese response are both disappointing, because it is obvious that no one government has the capability to bend North Korean behavior to its will. Notwithstanding irate public statements, every official working on the North Korea challenge knows it cannot be met without compatible actions by both the United States and China. In public statements as in bilateral negotiations, U.S. officials need to realize China’s government perceives several kinds of threats from the Korean Peninsula, including both a nuclear North Korea and a disorderly collapse of the status quo—the latter of which could be triggered by drastic measures some U.S. analysts advocate. Chinese officials need to realize that the U.S. will take measures, such as deploying the THAAD missile defense system, to defend U.S. and allied interests at a time when the nuclear threat is increasingly salient. Both governments need to accept rather than deny these realities as a precondition for effective joint action on a dangerous evolving problem. Both governments could exert more pressure on North Korea, but neither will achieve its goals without cooperating.
Clinton campaign sees working with China on Korea; Trump sees China with ‘virtually total control over North Korea’
North Korea is certain to be a foreign policy challenge for the next U.S. president, and visions differ on how China fits into that challenge. Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign issued statements on the test, with Clinton condemning the test and a Trump staffer condemning Clinton (but not, explicitly, the test). In a statement, Clinton said “China plays a critical role, too, and must meaningfully increase pressure on North Korea—and we must make sure they do.” In May Jake Sullivan, a top Clinton adviser,reportedly said North Korea “will have to be right at the top of the agenda for the next president to deal with” and added that “there is a possibility for the United States and China to cooperate on the North Korea issue effectively.” Clinton said at an event after the test the issue would be “on the top of [her] list in dealing with China.” Speaking shortly before the most recent test, Donald Trump was asked about his strategy on North Korea: “What I would do very simply is say, ‘China, this is your baby,’” Trump said. “‘This is your problem. You solve the problem.’ China can solve that problem. … China has virtually total control over North Korea. But they say they don’t because they want to tweak us.”
ANALYSIS: Clinton and her campaign have spoken repeatedly about the importance of confronting the realities of the Korean Peninsula early in the next president’s administration, and Clinton has floated the model of the Iran talks as a way to build a North Korea approach. I think my comment above should make clear my view of Trump’s “total control” hypothesis. It’s hard to believe it bears repeating that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a Chinese problem or a U.S. problem but a regional and global one. A successful resolution to these challenges is likely to require uncomfortable conversations between Chinese and U.S. officials about desirable end states for the Korean Peninsula. Clinton’s team seems ready to have those conversations; is the Chinese government?
Wu Zurong of the China Foundation for International Studies writes that an announced make-up visit by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to China is now unlikely to happen, because no mention of the plan appeared in the Chinese government’s lengthy “outcomes” document following the Obama-Xi meeting in Hangzhou. Carter had planned a visit to China earlier this year, but that was “postponed” in April in what some (including me) saw as a likely signal of disapproval of Chinese actions at the time. Carter said at the Shangri-La Dialogue he planned to visit China later in 2016, and Wu notes that the Chinese outcomes document from the Strategic and Economic Dialogue mentioned that visit. Without citing direct confirmation that the visit has been scrapped, Wu writes: “The difficulties surrounding a Carter visit to China are so huge that the two sides have for now agreed to give up on the visit, at least for the time being. … Most probably, Carter will be one of the very few U.S. defense secretaries who did not visit China during his tenure of office since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. It is truly regrettable for both China and the U.S.” / Meanwhile, in a contrasting commentary, retired Major General Yao Yunzhu writes of a positive “new normal” in bilateral military ties. Yao is one of the most prominent and respected figures in Track 2 and Track 1.5 bilateral dialogues.
ANALYSIS: Wu’s article does not on its own provide strong evidence that a China visit is really off the table for Carter, but his reading of the bilateral statements and possible inside information make it worth taking seriously. My own read of the diplomatic chatter about U.S.–China mil-mil relations is that the Obama era has been accompanied by a strong push for practical confidence building and crisis avoidance measures between the militaries, even as the two operate in proximity more frequently. A cancellation of the planned Carter visit would feed an emerging, less hopeful atmosphere in bilateral conversations in recent months.
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‘U.S. Seen Yielding on 2 Chinas in U.N.: New Support for Peking in State Department Hinted’
“UNITED NATIONS, N.Y., Sept 10[, 1966]—The United States appears to be moving toward acceptance of a two-China policy in the United Nations. No decision has yet been reached by the Administration. But the emphasis placed on a variety of arguments for the step by responsible officials indicates that powerful support has been generated for it in the State Department despite the opposition of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. In essence, the policy would shift the emphasis in American diplomacy from keeping the Chinese Communists out of the world organizations to keeping the Chinese Nationalists in if Peking was admitted. … Peking and its Communist sponsors here have insisted in the past that the People’s Republic must be the only Chinese representative at the United Nations. American sources do not believe that an acceptance of the two-China policy would have any immediate effect on Peking’s insistence on this condition nor on the Communists’ hostility toward the United States. They pin their faith on the theory that with the passage of time the policy will be accepted by both the Nationalist and Communist governments as perhaps the only way out of the present impasse.”
(Source: The New York Times. This entry is part of an ongoing feature of U.S.–China Week that follows U.S.–China relations as they developed in another era of change and uncertainty, 50 years ago.)
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U.S.–China Week is a weekly news and analysis brief that covers important developments in U.S.–China relations and features especially insightful or influential new policy analysis.
Graham Webster is a senior research scholar, lecturer, and senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. His website is gwbstr.com.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).
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