For the better part of the past eight years cooperation on addressing the challenges posed by North Korea has been a highlight of US-China cooperation. In the early months of the Obama administration, US-China cooperation on North Korea reached itsarguable peak as, despite their initial misgivings, China supported a strongly worded Presidential Statement at the UN Security Council in response to North Korea’s testing of a long-range missile. Shortly thereafter, on June 12 2009, China signed on to the most meaningful sanctions resolutions on North Korea to date, UNSC 1874.
While the exact cause of the shift is as of yet unknown, beginning sometime around the early fall 2009 there appears to have been a marked shift in Chinese priorities and views on how best to address the North Korean problem. Not only did they scale back their cooperation on implementing the UN Security Council sanctions, but they also began to be overtly and actively supportive of the Kim Jong-Il regime.
One possible explanation is that given the concern over North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s health, the uncertainties surrounding the succession process in North Korea, and evidence of ongoing economic turmoil in North Korea, the Chinese leadership felt it necessary to place a higher priority on its objective of avoiding collapse in North Korea.
Stepped-up Chinese support for North Korea continued over the fall, and even when faced with the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, the Chinese leadership decided to double their bet on the Kim Jong-Il regime rather than altering course. Chinese President Hu Jun Tao met Kim Jong- Il not just once but twice in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking and China repeatedly refused to hear evidence on or except conclusion that North Korea was responsible for this tragic event.
Similarly, following the North Korean shelling of Yeongpyeong Island, an act that killed two South Korean marines and two South Korean civilians China once again prevaricated and called for calm on all sides.
It is notable that over the period of shifting Chinese priorities with respect to North Korea there also has been a shift in US views of China's role, beginning with disappointment over Chinese implementation of UNSC sanctions. By the summer of 2010 these concerns were expressed as criticisms of China’s willful ignorance of North Korean behavior.
US views shifted further still following the most recent revelations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program and its November artillery barrage. China was openly accused of “enabling” North Korean bad behavior. China’s failure to respond to the sinking of the Cheonan and condemn the shelling of the island added to the view in Washington that China is increasingly part of the North Korean problem.
Re-Focus On September 2005 Joint Statement
In this context, the meeting this past January of President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao was particularly important. And there was some evidence of progress, at least in framing the North Korean problem.