The Obama administration faces an uphill battle in its growing effort to convince China to play a more active role in steering North Korea away from provoking a military conflict on the divided Korean Peninsula, foreign policy insiders say.
While the State Department has said Secretary of State John F. Kerry will focus heavily on North Korea during a visit this month to Beijing, the Pentagon this week reached out to Chinese military officials seeking their cooperation in defusing mounting tensions created by Pyongyang’s recent nuclear threats.
“Since the Chinese are the party that knows the North Koreans best and has the most comprehensive relationship with them, they clearly have leverage that I think the administration would like to see Beijing bring to bear,” said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The fundamental challenge for North Korea as an issue in the U.S-China relationship is that China views it from the perspective of geopolitics while the U.S. has viewed it as a functional de-nuclearization issue,” he said, adding that “the U.S. and China have been talking past each other” rather than truly working together.
Other analysts note how the Obama administration has come to prefer an overall Asia policy that addresses the varied nuclear ambitions and concerns of the region’s nations on a case-by-case basis — an approach that appears to now have the White House running increasingly against the winds of regional geopolitical change in Asia.
“The strategic and nuclear calculations of China, Korea, and Japan are becoming more and more tightly connected,” said Henry D. Sokolski, who heads the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a think tank based in Washington.
Administration policymakers prefer to address each of these states’ nuclear plans independently of one another, but “security realities in East Asia are bucking this approach,” Mr. Sokolski said. “Every time you talk about one of these countries, you now have to be thinking hard about the other two.”
The extent to which the Obama administration may be open to such a perspective has been unclear, as tension surrounding North Korea appeared to be causing a shift this week in Asia’s wider nuclear weapons landscape.
There were signs Wednesday that a new arms race is heating up in the region, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that South Korea is now pressing the Obama administration for U.S. permission to produce its own nuclear fuel.
Such developments are likely only to heighten the relevance of the evolving U.S.-China relationship, which analysts say has been complicated by China’s rise as a major global economic power — as well as the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt.
China’s wider geopolitical emergence has reduced North Korea to just one of many “issues on the agenda in the U.S-China relationship,” said Mr. Snyder. “So one of the challenges has been figuring out where this belongs as an issue on the agenda.”
In that, the Obama White House appears to have struggled badly. Specifically, recent years have found senior national security and foreign policy officials far less than eager to speak publicly about the administration’s true strategy for dealing with North Korea.
“The administration didn’t see much benefit in highlighting an issue where there’s very little space to take an initiative with risking potential for failure,” Mr. Snyder said. “I think one of the effects of the Obama administration’s downplaying the issue, was that it sent a message to the Chinese that the U.S. sees it as unimportant, when that was actually not the case.”
But for its own part, Beijing has done little recently to tamp down perceptions among some in Washington that China’s true strategy is to protect North Korea should the current round of tensions escalate into a military confrontation.