Could a Missile Defense Plan Turn China on North Korea?

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry urged Washington to start direct talks with North Korea over its most destructive weapons.

“The focus of the nuclear issue on the peninsula is between the United States and North Korea,” said Hong Lei, ministry spokesman, at the daily news briefing. “We urge the United States and North Korea to sit down and have communications and negotiations, to explore ways to resolve each other’s reasonable concerns and finally reach the goal we all want reached.”

Beijing, with the urging of the Bush administration, had sponsored the so-called Six-Party Talks, which began in 2003. The concept was that progress was possible when the US and all regional stakeholders—China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—were present in discussions with North Korea.

The White House thought that giving China a leading role would bring out the best in Beijing, which would then use its considerable leverage to “denuclearize” the Kim regime. North Korea and China are each other’s only formal ally.

Beijing, however, did not step up to the challenge, at least as Washington defined it. The Chinese used their position to play a balancing role, supporting Pyongyang as much as pressuring it.

The result, whether intentional or not, was that China gave the North Koreans the one thing they needed most to advance their weapons programs, time. After agreeing to a September 2005 statement to give up nukes, Pyongyang detonated its first atomic device in the middle of the talks, in October 2006. From there, it was only a question of time before Kim Jong Il, then the regime’s leader, would formally walk away from the Six-Party discussions. That happened in 2009.

After successive provocations—the nuclear detonation on January 6, the North’s fourth, and the February 8 test of a long-range rocket, the second successive success of a three-stage launcher—American diplomacy toward China took on a harder tone.

For example, Secretary of State John Kerry lectured the Chinese last month when, referring to the nuclear detonation, he told them that their approach to Pyongyang had not worked and that “we cannot continue business as usual.” The main purpose of Kerry’s visit to Beijing was to persuade China to increase pressure on its ally North Korea. Kerry failed.

“All nations, particularly those who seek a global leadership role or who have a global leadership role, share a fundamental responsibility to meet this challenge with a united front,” Kerry said in Beijing, obviously directing his words to a China that refused to meet American expectations.

Beijing, in response to the criticism, pushed back, taking the position that it is America’s responsibility to solve the nuclear issue, not China’s. In effect, China absolved itself of responsibility to support international efforts to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and essentially declared that North Korea was not its problem.

The Obama administration, however, is about to make it so. It is now persuading Seoul to accept and deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. THAAD, stationed in China’s neighborhood, will give the US the ability shoot down North Korean missiles—and help knock down Chinese ones. Beijing summoned the South Korean ambassador over the missile-defense discussions with the US, and a senior diplomat said THAAD makes China “furious”.

Now that the South Koreans appear amenable to accepting THAAD, Beijing is beginning to reconsider its refusal to apply pressure on Pyongyang. Although China is still trying to deflect responsibility, American policymakers may have found the key to bringing Beijing around.

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