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Colonel Brian Killough: The Catch-22 of Modern Chinese Foreign Policy

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
February 4, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) and Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Liaison Department of China's Communist Party, walk together for their meeting in Pyongyang on August 2, 2012. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) and Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Liaison Department of China's Communist Party, walk together for their meeting in Pyongyang on August 2, 2012. (KCNA/Courtesy Reuters)


Colonel Brian Killough is the U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Joseph Heller’s famous novel, Catch-22, the bombardier, John Yosserian, is caught in a situational paradox. Yosserian wants to be declared unfit for duty because he doesn’t want to fly in combat where he might be killed. But, by expressing his lack of desire, he shows himself to be sane and therefore among the most fit to fly in combat. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) finds itself today in a foreign policy paradox. On the one hand, the PRC repeatedly asserts its right to retake the world stage as a major international power and influence global standards, norms, and positions. This influence is increasingly necessary to maintain the nation’s economic growth. On the other hand, the PRC has been a staunch defender of the sovereign rights of nation-states and espouses a policy of noninterference. This stems from the desire to be able to handle declared “internal” Chinese issues such as Tibet, Uighur unrest, and individual freedoms as the PRC sees fit.

With foreign policy, the PRC wants to resolve disputes regionally where the PRC has the most influence. Examples include the territorial and resource disputes with the Phillipines and Vietnam in the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with Japan. Yet, when handed a golden opportunity to show themselves as leaders in the region and indeed, the world, by persuading North Korea (DPRK) to end its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, the most the PRC does is issue a series of diplomatic condemnations and agree to watered-down United Nations sanctions.

If the PRC took all necessary action and actually acted as a regional mentor to a nation that disregards all other voices, the applause and recognition from the rest of the international community would be deafening. In addition, the PRC could actually help the DPRK begin to emerge from the international isolation resulting from the DPRK’s belligerent behavior over the last sixty-three years. The two main risk factors for the PRC are:

  1. DPRK openness might lead eventually to regime change and reunification with the Republic of Korea
  2. The PRC, itself, would incur new expectations with respect to living up to international agreements and norms

To be fair, the PRC has allowed an ”increasingly dialectic domestic debate over China’s North Korea policy.” However, this debate has yet to show any effect on state policy beyond words. And, unlike Yosserian, the PRC will have to choose which path to take. Will China remain insular and hold steadfast to its non-interference principles? Or, will the benefit of continuing to grow into a stronger global power persuade new chairman Xi Jinping to take concrete steps to exert positive influence on North Korea? Time will tell, but with every passing day and each subsequent irrational act by North Korea, the PRC loses respect from its peers and risks being identified with the rogue regime. Conversely, the PRC could side with the overwhelming majority of nations that support new sanctions. Surely, the PRC has come too far down the road of globalism and international cooperation to turn its back on the opportunity for recognition and power.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    Colonel Killough raises several interesting points regarding Sino-DPRK relations which, hopefully, his counterparts at the PLA Academy of Military Science in Beijing are pondering.

    As an outside observer of Sino-US relations (neither a Chinese nor a US national, but author of a four-volume study of post-1949 Sino-US relations, listed here: ) I wish to point out a couple of contradictions apparent in his commentary.

    Firstly, Colonel Killough suggests that China ought to put significant pressure on the DPRK to force it to desist from its destabilising behaviour, especially with regard to its ballistic missile- and nuclear tests, and encourage Pyongyang to voluntarily give up its nuclear assets and capabilities. He also appears to believe that China’s refusal to take these actions challenges its increasing clout as an international actor that ought to be taken seriously. Beijing’s irritation with the DPRK’s destabilising acts is now no secret; in fact, US diplomats were made privy to such Chinese concerns several years ago.

    However, aware of the limits of its influence, Beijing has also been for many years urging Washington to engage Pyongyang directly to address the roots of the DPRK’s profound, even existential, insecurities, most of which are rooted in perceived threats confronting the DPRK elite from the US-led alliance virtually surrounding the DPRK since the Armistice. US officials did, at least on three occasions in recent years, directly negotiate with their North Korean counterparts, leading to certain agreements. So, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that such engagement will be revived at some stage. The Colonel’s expectation of China’s behaviour is unlikely to be met unless Pyongyang directly threatened Chinese interests.

    Secondly, to demand that China force the DPRK to accede to the demands made by powers which have acted, from Pyongyang’s perspective, in a clearly hostile fashion, without acceptable quid pro quo, is overly ambitious and unrealistic. The US-led alliance has deployed powerful forces – including, for a time, nuclear weapons – in the DPRK’s vicinity, regularly put up substantial shows of lethal force in proximate spaces, and treated the DPRK as a Pariah, even illegitimate, state although both the ROK and the DPRK were the products of the same foreign military actions. Since the DPRK’s ruling elite is virtually without reliable allies – given that Beijing’s patience is not a category that the DPRK can indefinitely depend on, profound insecurity has driven Pyongyang along the path of nuclear arms acquisition. Given post-Cold War experience, such weapons generate the only credible carapace of deterrence an insecure elite can count on. Surely the Colonel can understand this.

    If he does, how could he consider Chinese pressure an adequate instrument capable of denuclearising North Korea? The Colonel might not appreciate the depth of anxiety his country’s force-posture and post-Armistice policy – including the arbitrary proclamation and enforcement of the unilaterally drawn up Northern Limit Line – generate in Pyongyang, but without a sober comprehension of that reality, it is difficult to see how Washington might advance its stated objectives on the Peninsula. No amount of Chinese pressure could persuade the DPRK’s ruling elite to abandon what it considers its only protection from US threats to its survival and longevity.

    A rational appraisal of North Korea’s (indeed any state’s, for that matter) behaviour would incorporate an assessment of its threat-perceptions and risk-analyses. The Colonel appears to approach US interests from such a perspective, but appears to neglect a similar analysis of the DPRK’s assumptions.

    Pressing China to press North Korea is as unlikely to denuclearise Pyongyang as the repeated and frequent displays of allied firepower in the DPRK’s vicinity over the past sixty-years have failed to alter its behaviour.

    Nobody should condone destructive and destabilisng conduct by any state-party; but selective applications of the rational-empirical paradigm are unlikely to produce the desired outcome.

  • Posted by Colonel Brian Killough

    Mr. S. Mahmoud Ali makes some very good points in his comments. However, I did note that Beijing has made known their displeasure with the DPRK with their words. But they have not DONE anything other than talk.
    Pyongyang continues to take advantage of the 6-party framework and international aid organizations by making promises and agreeing to international demands with no intention of fulfilling those promises. The only way they are able to continue this cyclical behavior is because they have the flow of food and energy imports across the border from the PRC. The DPRK gets 45% of their food and 90% of their energy imports from China.
    Finally, the focus of the blog was on PRC actions and the cost to the PRC of maintaining their historical support to Pyongyang. I actually agree that an analysis of the DPRK threat perceptions and risk would be interesting and I may write on that soon but it was beyond the scope of this blog. Would Chinese sanctions alone be enough to reverse the DPRK assessment of the worth of nuclear weapons? Perhaps not. But, the good will and responsible behavior the PRC would demonstrate to the rest of the world would be worth far more than any lost trade with Pyongyang.

  • Posted by Bhaskar Menon

    The basic assumptions of the analysis are ill founded.

    China gains in influence by having North Korea on the east and Pakistan on the west as irresponsible nuclear Powers on the verge of being failed States.

    It helped both North Korea and Pakistan become nuclear-weapon States, and provides both with economic and political support. It does so because their Perils of Pauline existence gives it international clout.

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