What Does China Want? Part II: Taking up the Wang Yi Proposal and the China-DPRK War of Words



In a post last week, I reviewed the must-read Brookings brief from Fu Ying that outlines—at length—what might be called the official Chinese history of the North Korean nuclear crisis. The core message: Chinese cooperation hinges on a sincere effort on the part of the US to negotiate on the issue. In the UN Security Council meeting convened by the United States in its role as Chair, Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined his proposal in somewhat more detail than we have seen to date; the relevant sections are excerpted below.

The original proposal of conducting either parallel or what I call “omnibus” negotiations on both a peace regime and denuclearization remains intact. The slightly new wrinkle is that this so-called “dual track” approach is now linked explicitly to the "suspension for suspension" proposal, which trades a freeze on “nuclear and missile activities by the DPRK” for “the suspension of massive military exercises by the US and the ROK.” In a press availability at the UN, Ambassador Nikki Haley appeared to endorse the Wang Yi proposal, although with a somewhat more expansive conception of the suspension not only of testing but “all nuclear processes” (whatever that means).

The risk that China is taking is actually non-trivial. The ask to the United States is to accept the proposal as a confidence building measure to get negotiations going. But the Chinese proposal assumes that if the United States accepts, North Korea will show up. In my view, these negotiations would preferably return to the Six Party mechanism. Other formats, such as a four party one or multiple tracks, might also be appropriate as long as South Korea in particular is not frozen out.

It never seems a good time to propose that we pursue diplomacy, because the North Koreans always manage to make it difficult: missile and malware are the most recent stumbling blocks. But what are the objections? I list several of them in stylized form and note why they are not as debilitating as thought.

  • “North Korea probably maintains a second centrifuge site, not to mention facilities devoted to nuclear and missile research and weapons building. The freeze is meaningless without a full and accurate declaration and invasive inspections.” All true, but the objection is asking for something that is the outcome of the negotiations, not their starting point. The proposal should be seen for the limited measure it is—a freeze on missile and nuclear tests and easily observable activity at Yongbyon and the test sites, nothing more.
  • “If the US takes up the proposal, it gives up leverage.” The US should interpret the offer literally. It does not call on the US to refrain from taking other defensive actions and maintaining existing sanctions and it does not offer relief with respect to multilateral sanctions; to the contrary, it states that UNSC resolutions should be upheld by all parties. To be sure, China emphasizes that sanctions measures should not go beyond those contained in Security Council resolutions, and the North Koreans could use the sanctions outlined by Secretary Tillerson at the Security Council to demur. But taken literally, the proposal is a relatively narrow quid-pro-quo.
  • “The freeze proposal undermines US-ROK capabilities and weakens the alliance.” I am continually surprised by how both high- and lower-ranking military with familiarity with the Korean peninsula dismiss these arguments. To be sure, permanently abandoning such exercises might carry some cost. But the idea that we don’t have training options is far-fetched: they can be reconfigured, held elsewhere, or even delayed for a cycle. Moreover, with the new Moon administration favoring talks, accepting this offer—if South Korea is OK with it—would actually strengthen the alliance.

There are several ways in which this might happen, but the most logical is some sort of “talks about talks” in which the two sides put aside their preconditions in order to—well—put aside their preconditions. The easiest way back to talks is to simply allow both sides to put any issue on the table they want. For the US that will clearly be denuclearization first and foremost; for North Korea it will include a peace regime and no doubt sanctions relief.

The real issue, however, is whether North Korea will agree to the offer. The recent war of words in the North Korean and Chinese press is veiled in plausible government deniability on the Chinese side. But the language has gotten more and more strident. The opening salvo was “commentary” on stories in the People's Daily and the Global Times at KCNA. Although several other such editorials have appeared in recent months, this is the first to my knowledge that explicitly names China and particular press stories. The target of the commentary are arguments that North Korea is, in effect, a strategic liability: undermining China’s national interests by stirring up trouble on the peninsula and even posing more specific threats to the three Northeast provinces. Rather, “China should acknowledge in an honest manner that the DPRK has just contributed to protecting peace and security of China, foiling the U.S. scheme for aggression by waging a hard fight in the frontline of the showdown with the U.S. for more than seven decades, and thank the DPRK for it.” The Global Times quickly fired back, including through a collation of critical commentary. The rebuttals are predictable, but several points were striking. First, “China's proposed ‘double suspension’ seeks to assist in US efforts to get the related parties back to the negotiation table.” This is a pretty forthcoming acknowledgement of US-China cooperation.

But second, the Global Times piece acknowledges the difficulties China has been having in communicating with the North: “Beijing and Pyongyang need to pursue higher levels of dialogue with one another. It is only through such efforts that Pyongyang can be pulled out of the blind alley it insists on remaining in…” Yet this admission only underlines that Beijing is putting in effort. Timing is always hard, but the path is narrow and the Wang Yi proposal or some variant is probably close to where that narrow path winds.

Excerpts from Wang Yi Speech at the United Nations Security Council on April 28.

“In view of recent developments on the Peninsula, China has put forward the proposal of "suspension for suspension", which builds on the "dual-track" approach we proposed earlier. The "dual-track" approach aims to promote parallel progress in denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner, ultimately achieving both goals simultaneously. The "suspension for suspension" proposal, which calls for the suspension of nuclear and missile activities by the DPRK and the suspension of massive military exercises by the US and the ROK, seeks to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, thus initiating the first step of the "dual-track" approach.

China's above-mentioned proposals help to promote short-term and long-term goals in a complementary and mutually reinforcing way. While they are designed to address the most pressing concerns of the parties, they also help pave the way for denuclearization. They are consistent with the requirement of the Security Council resolutions and the fundamental interests of all parties, including the US and the DPRK. The proposals are objective, fair, reasonable and feasible, and are gaining understanding and support from more and more countries.

First, we must cool down tensions on the Peninsula as quickly as possible. Given the grave situation there, China strongly urges all parties to remain cool-headed and exercise restraint, and avoid provocative rhetoric or actions that would lead to miscalculation. I want to stress that, there isn't and should not be any double standard in this regard. We ask the DPRK to observe the Security Council resolutions and stop advancing its nuclear and missile development. At the same time, we ask the US, the ROK and other parties to refrain from conducting or even expanding military exercises and deployment against the DPRK.

Second, all parties should observe and implement DPRK-related Security Council resolutions in their entirety. In addition to imposing sanctions on the DPRK, the resolutions adopted to date also call for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, avoidance of escalating tensions and commitment to resolution through dialogue. In other words, carrying out sanctions and promoting resumption of talks are both part of the Security Council resolutions, which should not be implemented in a partial or selective way as one sees fit.

As a response to the accelerated progress of DPRK's nuclear and missile development, the international community needs to step up non-proliferation efforts. Likewise, to prevent the escalation of tensions on the Peninsula, the parties should step up efforts to promote dialogue for peace. Stepping up efforts on both fronts will help facilitate the peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue on the Peninsula. The Chinese word for "crisis" contains two characters meaning "danger" and "opportunity". It shows if one can seize the opportunity amidst danger, a crisis may be turned into an opportunity. In China's view, now is the time to seriously consider resuming talks.

Last but certainly not least, I want to reiterate China's firm opposition to the US deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in the ROK. Such a move seriously undermines the strategic security of China and other countries in the region, and damages the trust and cooperation among the parties on the Peninsula issue. It is neither helpful for achieving denuclearization nor conducive to long-term stability on the Peninsula. China once again urges the relevant parties to immediately stop the deployment process. Let us make joint efforts to promote denuclearization and uphold peace on the Peninsula on the basis of mutual respect and mutual trust.”

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