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Obama and Xi to meet in the desert

Obama and Xi to meet in the desert

Photo: Sky News

This weekend’s meeting in the California desert between a re-elected President Obama and his new Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will likely leave a large imprint on one of the world’s most important relationships in the years to come. Though the six-plus hours of meetings spread over two days will be unscripted, one important topic of discussion likely to surface is the fate of North Korea’s arsenal of chemical weapons, missiles and nuclear weapons. Both Beijing and Washington have expressed growing frustration with China’s longtime ally North Korea, and both need to discuss how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, what to do if the government in Pyongyang collapses, and how to respond in case of a humanitarian emergency.

The frustrations stem from Pyongyang demanding to be treated as a nuclear power, the repeated flouting of international demands to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, and the launching of rocket and nuclear tests this winter. Washington is insisting on verifiable signs of the North’s willingness to disarm before international negotiations can restart, and has reacted to Pyongyang’s recent threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the U.S. and its allies by scaling up military exercises with South Korea. These exercises included staging flights of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers and boosting missile defenses. China, which supplies North Korea with critical supplies of food and energy, including diplomatic support, is likewise taking a tougher stance. Alarmed by how quickly North Korea destabilized the entire region with its threats, Beijing is now supporting tighter U.N. sanctions and stepped up border inspections — even taking the drastic step of forcing a leading Chinese state bank to shut accounts of North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, its main foreign exchange institution.

Whether or not these actions have had any effect on the new regime of Kim Jung-Un’s thinking is subject to debate – many analysts wonder just how much control Beijing has over its belligerent neighbor. In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Affairs magazine in May, Ambassador Cui Tiankai stated that the media overstate China’s influence on its secretive Stalinist neighbor. Two weeks ago, China hosted a top North Korean envoy, and Pyongyang declared a willingness to return to the negotiating table. But the day after his return, Pyongyang repudiated the goal of denuclearization — a U.S. prerequisite for restarting long-stalled aid-for-disarmament negotiations. Whether or not these “carrot and stick” actions by China and other nations will bring about a collapse is increasingly in question, particularly since Beijing is not taking steps that could hasten the end of the Kim regime, such as cutting supplies.

While there is no sign that the North Korean regime is in imminent danger, talk of a collapse is no longer taboo among state-linked Chinese academics. William Fallon, a former chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said that in unofficial meetings in China this year with former and current Chinese government and military officials, he detected a willingness of Chinese officials to consider such discussions with Washington officials. During unofficial talks on Northeast Asian security held in Germany last week, government-linked Chinese academics signaled that Beijing’s long-held interest in maintaining stability at all costs in North Korea is shifting, as increased emphasis is put on denuclearization.

But just how far is Beijing willing to tighten the screws on its belligerent neighbor? China has plenty of reasons to fear a North Korean collapse, foremost is the exodus of hungry refugees from a nation of 24 million across its border, and the possibility of a reunified Korea allied with the United States, hosting American troops on China’s doorstep. During this weekend’s meetings, Beijing and Washington need to overcome deep, mutual suspicions that characterize their relations as the world’s two superpowers.

One way to overcome this deep mistrust is to address Beijing’s concerns over the U.S. “pivot to Asia”. From the start of President Obama’s efforts to boost the U.S. profile and long-established presence in Asia, Beijing has long been annoyed with an increase in the U.S. military presence in it’s own backyard. One way to reduce this annoyance is through greater communication between Washington and Beijing over what this “pivot” actually means. Obama could also open the lines of communication on the economic front, discussing with Xi the possibility of China joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade talks in order to foster greater economic integration.

Of course, one big reason for the increase in the U.S. military presence in the region stems from the growing threat from North Korea’s new leader. While the 25,000 troops on the border of North and South Korea (along the Demilitarized Zone) were stationed there prior to Obama’s pivot, if the Commander in Chief gave some assurance the troops would be removed from the Korean Peninsula should peace return, it could help relieve some of the anxiety in Beijing. Yes, there would be a U.S. ally on the border with China, but with today’s advances in military capability, 25,000 boots on the ground are more symbolic than strategic, considering North Korea boasts 1.2 million armed soldiers. Contingency plans should also be drawn up among Beijing, South Korea, the U.S. and the various humanitarian agencies in order to deal with the exodus of refugees should the North Korean regime collapse. There are existing underground networks which could be further strengthened through additional multilateral assistance and funding.

Given the informal nature of this weekend’s dialogue between the world’s two superpowers, the two leaders have a real chance at overcoming misunderstanding and distrust. There are shared concerns over many issues, not just in North Korea, but a contingency plan for a potentially volatile neighbor is an immediate concern. The new regime in North Korea may have calmed down its rhetoric and actions in recent days, but history has shown us this calm will be short-lived.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666