Welcome to the March 2019 installment of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column that provides a running commentary on the evolution of the important relationship between China and Japan and helps to put current events in perspective.
From a Sino-Japanese relations perspective, a stalemate in U.S.-DPRK negotiations like the one which resulted from the Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on February 27-28, is not the worst outcome – and may even be preferable to a breakthrough. A bad deal, on the other hand, could quickly have become a source of tensions given the conflicting interests held by China and Japan regarding the Korean peninsula.
A checkered history
In the past, the North Korean issue has been both an area of cooperation and a source of disagreement for Beijing and Tokyo. The threat from North Korea served as the main impetus for a number of Japanese security reforms including the decision to recommit to its alliance with the United States in the 1990s and the acquisition of missile defense capabilities. These reforms drew the ire of Beijing, which saw them as an attempt to undermine its military deterrent toward Taiwan – or to contain China outright.
Nevertheless, Beijing and Tokyo found some common ground in dealing with North Korea as members of the ultimately unsuccessful six-party talks held from 2003 to 2007. China and Japan agree on the importance of achieving denuclearization in principle, but their policy toward Pyongyang is shaped by different priorities. While China emphasizes preserving stability in the Korean peninsula, Japan divides its attention between mitigating the threat from North Korean missiles and resolving the abductees issue.
Since the discontinuation of the six-party talks, the North Korean issue has become less prominent in Sino-Japanese relations, with territorial tensions in the East China Sea coming to the fore instead, while the United States chose to adopt a stance of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang. This changed in recent years as President Donald Trump ratcheted up the aggressiveness of U.S. rhetoric and North Korea accelerated its program of nuclear and missile tests. As security on the Korean peninsula once again became a major concern for both China and Japan, the two sides affirmed their support for new UN sanctions.
The United States, South Korea, and North Korea have since shifted to diplomatic engagement. However, support for sanctions aiming to bring about the denuclearization of the peninsula officially remains the common position for China and Japan, as reaffirmed during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing in October 2018. Behind this façade, however, the two countries have different views on the current negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
An ongoing dialogue – no matter how slow – is the most desirable scenario for China, which is not expecting a resolution of the nuclear issue any time soon. The shift to diplomacy lessened international scrutiny of how China was implementing sanctions at its border with North Korea along the Yalu River, while as Kim extended a hand to South Korea and the United States he concurrently abandoned his rather cold attitude toward his larger neighbor. The North Korean leader made a show of coming to Beijing to pay his respects to Xi Jinping in order to receive support for his negotiations with Washington. China has celebrated the warming of relations between the two foes, and has boasted about its own positive role in promoting it.
The failure of the Hanoi summit will therefore have come as something of a disappointment, although not a major one. Beijing was reassured by the positive tone adopted by President Trump in his post-summit press conference and by both sides’ promise to keep talking. As long as diplomacy prevails, Beijing can keep engaging the North and pose as a responsible party supporting peace and stability in the region.
Policymakers in Tokyo, meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief after the Hanoi summit, as many in Japan were concerned that Trump would agree to sanction relief or a reduction of the U.S. troop presence in the Korean peninsula. Tokyo is now a rather isolated defender of the “maximum pressure” approach aimed at keeping harsh sanctions on Pyongyang in order to force it to disarm. As South Korea, China, and the U.S. all held summits with Pyongyang, Japan has watched from the sidelines. For this reason, and due to the stalemate over the unresolved abductees issue – which Abe vowed to make his “life’s work” – Japan has made little progress in developing its relations with North Korea. Abe has repeated his intent to meet Kim following the Hanoi summit, but talks with Japan do not seem to be on North Korea’s agenda at this stage.
At the same time, the ballistic missile threat posed by DPRK’s arsenal remains a significant concern. Certainly, the suspension of tests agreed on by Kim Jong Un in 2018 – and apparently reaffirmed at the Hanoi summit – has been a major improvement over the previous situation which saw several missiles flying over the Japanese archipelago. Still, the diplomatic process has not produced any meaningful concession from North Korea beyond that. Worse yet, there are strong concerns that the United States will focus on diminishing the threat posed by ICBMs to its homeland while neglecting the issue of shorter range missiles, which some would consider tantamount to abandoning its Asian allies.
A satisfying stalemate?
Despite their differing views, a stalemate in U.S.-DPRK talks might satisfy both China and Japan – certainly more so than a return to confrontation, the fear of which has been reawakened by signs of recent activity at a North Korean missiles test site and by American talk of new sanctions, and perhaps even more so than a resolution. A resolution of the nuclear issue and a true rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang would diminish China’s leverage and strategic importance for the two countries. As for Japan, its main worries lie in the possibility of a U.S.-DPRK agreement that results in a tacit recognition of the latter’s status as a nuclear state or of its possession of short range missiles. In such a scenario, Tokyo would then feel forced to further strengthen its defense capabilities, to the great displeasure of China.
As a result, so long as Washington and Pyongyang keep talking without making significant progress, the North Korean issue will not be a disruptive force in Sino-Japanese relations. If a resolution comes into sight, however, the two countries might have to grapple with a strategic realignment that creates new points of friction in a relationship that already has its fair share. Fortunately for them, after the Hanoi summit, such a resolution remains a distant prospect.