Authors: Wang Li & Fan Yao-tian
During August 15-17, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China, which was followed by the signing of the framework to build a new dialogue mechanism between two joint staff departments.
Since the JSD plays a crucial role in actual combat operations, experts said the mechanism would strengthen effective communication between the two powers, reduce miscalculations on both sides and improve risk management in view of Asia’s increasingly complex geopolitical climate. Equally, top military officials of the two countries agreed to develop military relations and exchanges amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula along with South China Sea and the Taiwan issue.
Gen. Dunford was not only the first top U.S. military official to visit China since Trump came to office, but also the timing of his visit is highly complex and sensitive due to the provocative moves by the DPRK (North Korea), deployment of THAAD by the U.S in the ROK (South Korea), and President Trump’s order on August 14 to investigate China’s trade practice, heralding a possible trade war. Considering all the happening, Dunford’s visit to China has drawn keen attention around the world.
Over the past months, a series of nuclear and missile tests conducted by the DPRK and the looming threat have left the United States frustrated; and Japan and the ROK worried. The complaints over the restlessness of the DPRK emerging from the nuclear-related tests have consistently embarrassed China since it is the only de jure ally of Pyongyang. In early August, the DPRK military stated it would complete a plan to strike the sea around Guam by mid-August. Following that, the US responded firmly if the DPRK does anything against or attack its allies or the US itself, things will happen to the DPRK like it never opined possible. Given this, Chinese President Xi Jinping made phone call to his U.S. counterpart to assure Trump that China was willing to keep all communications with the U. S. on the basis of mutual respect and jointly work for the proper resolution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
As always in international relations, diplomacy makes farce if no force is backed up; but force only makes catastrophe with no sound diplomacy. Since China has disputed with the United States and the ROK on the THAAD issue, the leaders of Beijing have smartly and swiftly approached their closest strategic partner — Russia. On the same day of Gen. Dunford’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese FM Wang Yi held phone talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia at request, mainly exchanging views on the current Korean Peninsula situation. The two FMs reiterated that the peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is the only way acceptable to both China and Russia; and vowed to permit no one to stir up incidents on China and Russia’s doorstep. Yet, both powers would make joint endeavor to cool down the “August crisis” including to “put the brakes” on mutually irritating rhetoric and actions between the DPRK and the U.S.A. Afterwards, FM Wang Yi also made phone talk with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who indicated full supports to China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal and called on all parties concerned to strive to promote a peaceful settlement of the issue.
With Russia and Germany standing behind, China confidently approached the United States to discuss the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. Frankly speaking, while Beijing and Pyongyang enjoy political and cultural proximity, there have been no meetings between the leadership of the two sides since Kim came to power. It should be recalled that when Kim conducts missile tests, the security of northeast China is obviously menaced. The Chinese media openly criticize Kim for jeopardizing his country’s future. A recent Global Times editorial asserted clearly, “At least for now, what North Korea is doing goes against China’s strategic interests.” In order to keep the public opinion informed of Chinese position on the issue, Beijing agreed to the toughest UN Security Council sanctions to date against the DPRK; and its Ministry of Commerce and customs administration have jointly enforced the sanctions by fully banning imports of coal, iron, lead, ores, and seafood from the DPRK. Yet geopolitically, China is concerned about chaos on the Korean Peninsula for the U.S. military presence expands and the “regime change” prescription gains ground.
No doubt, a war on the Korean Peninsula would be anathema to China, which does not want to see North Korea completely devastated. The regional and international implications of such an outcome cannot be foreseen, the scale of the conflict cannot be anticipated, and a huge flow of refugees from North Korea to China would lead to more potential problems. China is mostly wary of the ambition in Washington to achieve “regime change”, a development that could – in its view – bring about greater instability in the whole region. As the U.S. military presence is steadily increasing—its fleet in the South China Sea and around the Pacific is growing, and the THAAD system has been deployed in the ROK, China proposes instead that the Six Party Talks be relaunched and its long-term goal would be to bring the DPRK to the negotiations table by offering it motivation to cooperate. Beijing holds that at present, the most pressing thing is to stop the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs and the vicious circle of escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula. To that end, it is worthwhile to put aside the contention over who should take the first step.
Dunford’s visit to China came on the heels of intense exchanges between President Trump and the DPRK. Would China be able to persuade the United States, in particular the military groups, to listen to Beijing-initiated proposal of “suspension for suspension” that means both the DPRK and the U.S (and its ally) agree to suspend provocative military drills? This is the key reason that Chinese leaders paid high attention to Gen. Dunford’s visit to China.
While in Beijing, Dunford met President Xi Jinping who is also the chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission. During the meeting, Xi stressed that China and the U.S. share common interests in achieving the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and maintaining the status quo there. To resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, it is ultimately to stick to the tenet of opening negotiation and political settlement. China is ready to keep communication with the U.S. on the basis of mutual respect, so as to jointly promote the proper settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. Xi spoke highly of the new progress made in relations between the two armed forces, such as enhanced dialogue at all levels and improved military confidence-building mechanisms.
Also during his visit to China, Gen. Dunford and his team were invited to visit a military base in PLA Northern Theater Command on August 16 to interact with Chinese soldiers and officers, as well as to observe a military exercise by the Chinese soldiers. Tactically, this episode aims to show publicly Chinese military more open and transparent than expected. And a sound relationship between the two militaries should be founded on consistent dialogue, mutual respect and mutual trust. During all the meetings with Chinese command-in-chief, Chief of Joint Staff and chief of the Northern Theatre Command, Gen. Dunford was reported to say that the United States was willing to work with China, to follow the framework planned by and the consensus reached between the two heads of state, jointly to expand the areas for cooperation. He held that the militaries of the two countries should build and give play to the communication and coordination with a view to constructively resolving the current issues and moving towards mutual trust and interaction.
It is true that the DPRK nuclear issue has dominated the agenda of Sino-U.S. relations recently. And the cliché goes that President Trump has abandoned the “strategic patience” ethos of the Obama’s administration and criticizes Beijing for not putting greater pressure on Pyongyang. However, the United States, an established global superpower, and China, a rising power with global interests, are attempting to find a modus vivendi that will define the Korean nuclear issue. Although the situation remains highly complex and sensitive, the tensions on the Korean Peninsula have shown signs of abating. During his short stay in Beijing, Gen. Dunford stated once again that “to peacefully achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the common goal of both China and the U.S., and a military solution will be terrifying.“ The reasons behind his remarks are various, but one thing is clear that Washington and Beijing agree on the urgency of mitigating risks stemming from the unpredictable behavior of the DPRK government. To achieve that end, both sides need to make all efforts to keep dialogues open in light of mutual respect and mutual trust. For sure, China and the United States would not share the same perspective on many of the thorny issues involving the Korean Peninsula nuclear test issue, yet they do have the consensus in preserving the peace and stability of the world.
(*) Fan Yao-tian, MA in Finance & International Affairs Commentator