Korean tensions temper US - China relationship
ROBERT G. PATMAN AND SARAH MACINDOE
OPINION: China's policy towards the Korean Peninsula is a crucial factor in the US' ability to address North Korea's nuclear programme.
The tense situation on the Korean Peninsula could have a critical impact on US-China relations in the Asia-Pacific region.
Deepening US-China competition in the region is essentially the result of two interrelated trends: the refocusing on the Asia-Pacific area by both China and the United States and the emergence of China as the world's second most powerful actor.
These trends have been propelled by 30 years of unprecedented Chinese economic growth, Beijing's growing economic and political presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and the election of Barack Obama as the first ''Pacific President'' of the United States.
In many ways, the Obama Administration's current policy seeks to straddle the divide in American opinion over China.
Some observers believe globalisation and growing international interdependence will facilitate the peaceful rise of China, while others insist Beijing's economic growth and burgeoning military capabilities will certainly culminate in a confrontation with Washington at some point.
In November 2011, the Obama Administration announced it would deepen its ''pivot'' to Asia, and would ''play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future''.
Mr Obama's ''pivot'' reflects both a desire to pursue economic and diplomatic engagement with China, and a determination to maintain a regional military balance of power with Beijing.
Central to American efforts are treaty alliances - such as those with Japan and South Korea - that Hillary Clinton termed the ''fulcrum'' for the US' turn towards the Asia-Pacific region.
Recent years have seen, in particular, a strengthening and modernising of the US-South Korea alliance.
Tensions were raised earlier this year by Kim Jong-un's belligerent rhetoric and periodic threats against South Korea and its US ally.
China's policy towards the Korean Peninsula is a crucial factor in the US' ability to address North Korea's nuclear programme.
While bilateral ties between China and North Korea have frayed in recent years as China continues to implement economic reforms, China remains the DPRK's primary source of fuel and food supplies.
But if China shares the US' desire for stability on the peninsula, it also distrusts US intentions in this area and remains wary of the consequences of reducing support for its North Korean ally.
The Obama team wants China's co-operation in dealing with the North Korean question. However, the task of persuading China to assume greater responsibility for North Korea's denuclearisation is challenging.
American discussions with China on the security environment on the peninsula must involve extensive US co-ordination with its allies in Seoul (and Tokyo), and that in turn complicates the task of building a US-China dialogue on North Korea.
Questions around Korean unification and the nuclear status of the Korean Peninsula remain central to US-China competition - and indeed to co-operation - in the Asia-Pacific.
In the current circumstances, the Obama Administration's mixed strategy of reassurance and restraint towards the Korean Peninsula makes strategic sense.
The US must co-operate closely with its South Korean ally and provide a firm reassurance of an American presence - both politically and militarily - in the region.
At the same time, the United States and South Korea should continue to exercise restraint in the face of North Korea's often provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric.
Such an approach will not end US-Chinese competition, but it will avoid escalating tensions to the point where China feels it has little choice but to back North Korea.
The two-track strategy will help to preserve a US-China dialogue over North Korea, and also keeps open the possibility of new thinking in North Korea or China that could ultimately facilitate a peaceful unification of the two Koreas.
Today's challenge in the Asia-Pacific region for the US (and China) is to recognise that in a globalising world the benefits of great-powers' co-operation far exceed those of competition even in hot-spots like the Korean Peninsula.
Robert Patman is a professor of international relations at Otago University.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation that led the Korea and New Zealand Track II Dialogue in Wellington on 4 October.