Is the Pacific Big Enough for All of Us?: China’s Shifting Role vis-à-vis North Korea and U.S.-China Strategic Cooperation

Memo #242

By Key-young Sonskyquick [at]

A fundamental shift is taking place in China’s idea of its leadership role in Northeast Asia that may have profound implications for the region and its strategic relations with the United States. As a treaty ally of North Korea, China has long been known as a virtual protector and guarantor of a North Korean regime faced with a wide range of economic and diplomatic problems. But will this erstwhile role remain entrenched with the election of Xi Jinping as secretary-general of the Communist Party of China in November 2012 and the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013? According to recent press reports, China, which has traditionally played the role of a stabilizer (prioritizing stability over nonproliferation) on the Korean Peninsula, has substantially shifted its role to that of an enforcer of international norms and rules in handling, for example, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

As a result, a new form of G2-style leadership led by the United States and China is on the horizon, signaling a farewell to the U.S.’s sole regional leadership in East Asia. It remains to be seen whether such a realignment, which emerged in response to the North Korean nuclear issue, could spill over into other regional and global concerns requiring the cooperation of the two great powers.

China’s role shift stems from a widening gap between China and North Korea regarding their respective worldviews and security concerns. Distancing itself from the role of regional player enmeshed in a form of security cronyism, China is now aspiring to emerge as a great power subscribing to universal norms and values. This translates into a more assertive China vis-à-vis North Korea. Already China’s criticism of North Korea’s nuclear test and its other violations of international norms have gone from informal to formal, from behind the scenes to public, testifying to the widening gap between the priorities of China and North Korea.

Dr. Key-young Son is Humanities Korea Professor at the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University in Seoul, Korea.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing (April 2013).

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