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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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4.6 North Korea – potential shared interests?

Territorial disputes reveal how triangular relationships in the region involving US or Chinese allies complicate the relationship between China and the United States. In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, flouting efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. In response to international criticism, the isolated communist state made a series of belligerent statements towards both the United States and South Korea.

The problem that the United States faces in dealing with North Korea is that North Korea has largely isolated itself from the rest of the world. The United States has little leverage over North Korea. It has no economic or political mechanisms that it can use to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme and to stop threatening its neighbours. However, China does have potential mechanisms for exerting power over North Korea.

The United States recognises this. In response to the crisis in February 2013, the United States sent Secretary of State John Kerry to China to urge them to use their leverage over the North Koreans.

However, Chinese troops fought against the United States in the Korean War and up to half a million Chinese died, and China isn’t yet ready to abandon North Korea. China remains the country’s lifeline, supplying food and fuel without which the North would collapse.

China and the United States do have some shared interests. Both have stressed their shared interests in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and official policy is to cooperate to achieve those ends. As you have seen, at various points in history when China and the United States have shared mutual interests they have been willing to work together.

However, North Korea is highly dependent on China for critical political and economic support. Although there is a fear that Chinese pressure would lead to North Korea acting even more unpredictably, there are also considerable internal divisions within China and some fear sanctions against North Korea would result in an influx of refugees. More strategically, some in China fear that any action against North Korea could cause the state to collapse with the potential of reunification of the Korean Peninsula under South Korea creating another pro-US state on China’s borders.