Over the last decade, China has become more engaged internationally, including in conflict zones and fragile states of strategic interest to the United States. From civil wars in neighboring countries, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, to more distant conflicts in Africa, China is becoming an increasingly important player in regional and international efforts to mitigate conflict. In countries where China exerts a strong influence, its engagement can have a substantial impact on local and international efforts to curb violence and extremism.
The United States Institute of Peace is convening a series of bipartisan Senior Study Groups (SSGs) to examine China’s influence on conflict dynamics around the world. The SSGs offer new insights into China's objectives and role vis-à-vis various conflicts, and generate recommendations for ways the U.S. government and other key stakeholders may account for China’s impact in their work to prevent and resolve conflict and support lasting peace.
China’s Role in North Korea Nuclear and Peace Negotiations
This is the second in the Senior Study Group (SSG) series of USIP reports examining China’s influence on conflicts around the world. A group of fifteen experts met from September to December 2018 to assess China’s interests and influence in bringing about a durable settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis. This report provides recommendations for the United States to assume a more effective role in shaping the future of North Korea in light of China’s role and interests. Unless otherwise sourced, all observations and conclusions are those of SSG members.
For decades, North Korea’s nuclear program has ranked among the top security challenges for the United States. This threat increased in urgency following a sharp uptick in North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and especially with its first intercontinental ballistic missile test in July 2017. Then, in June 2018 in Singapore, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for the first time, marking a new chapter in U.S. engagement with North Korea. In a joint statement, the two sides agreed to work toward a new bilateral relationship, the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” as well as to cooperate on recovering the remains of Americans who had died in the Korean War.
Since the diplomatic opening created by the Singapore summit, the key challenge for the United States and its partners has been to develop a negotiation process capable of sustaining momentum toward those objectives. This has proved difficult, and negotiations are at a stalemate. The two sides were most recently unable to come to an agreement at Trump and Kim’s second meeting, which was held in February 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Washington and Pyongyang are divided over the definition of denuclearization and how to sequence steps toward achieving denuclearization, creating a new bilateral relationship, and establishing a peace regime. North Korea has called for a “phased and synchronous” approach in which reciprocal concessions are traded between Washington and Pyongyang in a step-by-step manner. In Hanoi, Kim demanded the lifting of five of the eleven U.N. sanctions imposed on the regime, which focus on the civilian economy, in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex, an offer Trump was unwilling to accept. Since the Hanoi summit, Washington has said that it rejects an “incremental” approach and instead expects both a “big deal” in which North Korea denuclearizes “fully, finally and verifiably” in return for complete sanctions relief as well as progress on the other pillars identified in the Singapore statement.
China shares Washington’s desire for North Korea’s denuclearization but does not believe it is achievable in the short term. Beijing considers a nuclear North Korea to be inherently destabilizing because it provides a rationale for U.S. military deployments and possible intervention in the region, prompts regional actors such as Japan and South Korea to strengthen their defensive capabilities, and raises calls for the development of indigenous nuclear capabilities in these countries—all of which are inimical to China's interests and security. Beijing, therefore, continues to favor a step-by-step, dual-track process for both advancing denuclearization and creating a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
China is a vital player in efforts to denuclearize North Korea and must be encouraged to play a constructive role. Because of Beijing’s outsized economic relationship with Pyongyang, its cooperation—or lack of cooperation—in sanctions enforcement largely determines the effectiveness of economic pressures. Moreover, North Korean leadership consults regularly with China and seeks its support in negotiations with Washington, even as it seeks to play Washington and Beijing off one another. China’s ability to shield Pyongyang from economic and political pressure makes Beijing an important factor in efforts to influence North Korea. The United States should work with China to ensure that Beijing wields this influence constructively, recognizing that Washington and Beijing will never be in lock step.
Nevertheless, China will not “resolve” the North Korea crisis for the United States. North Korea seeks security assurances, sanctions relief, and diplomatic recognition from the United States. China can offer its own security assurances and sanctions relief, but it cannot provide what Pyongyang wants in either respect from Washington. Beijing, moreover, has shown that there are limits on the pressure it will exert on Pyongyang. It believes that pushing too hard would only reduce its ability to shape North Korea’s behavior and potentially provoke more risk-acceptant behavior should such pressure prove destabilizing. The United States, therefore, should not place undue reliance on resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum solely through Chinese pressure.
North Korea depends heavily on China. Under growing isolation from global sanctions, North Korea has become increasingly dependent on China for trade. To diversify its economic and diplomatic relationships, Pyongyang therefore seeks improved relationships with the United States and other countries.
Given the high level of distrust between the United States and North Korea, Pyongyang is unlikely to agree to an all-or-nothing approach that requires its immediate and complete denuclearization in return for full sanctions relief and other diplomatic concessions. The United States should instead pursue negotiations based on a step-by-step, parallel-track process that can build the trust necessary for reciprocal measures toward denuclearization and a peace regime. This approach is the most practical way to achieve progress toward U.S. national security objectives.
The step-by-step approach is in broad terms close to the phased and synchronous approach that both China and North Korea prefer, but adopting their preferred approach does not also require adopting their preferred measures. Within such a process, China and North Korea can be expected to push for reciprocal de-escalation. Washington should identify measures that it can offer Pyongyang in return for steps toward denuclearization without reducing (or with minimal reduction in) U.S. readiness and force posture on the Korean Peninsula.
The United States should work with China as well as regional allies to implement a coordinated approach to this process. China could be especially helpful by clearly signaling to Pyongyang that the price of seeking to be a de facto nuclear power will be continued heavy sanctions and international opprobrium, and that full denuclearization, over time, is the best alternative. Moreover, a road map that Washington and Beijing jointly endorse would send a strong signal to Pyongyang that efforts to exploit differences between them will fail.
Although defining a road map with China will be neither quick nor easy, Beijing supports a dual-track approach and is likely to engage in discussions based on such a premise. China could further contribute—alongside the United States and South Korea—to the long-term negotiating process by offering North Korea security and economic incentives, technical assistance on arms control, and assurance that it is committed to helping sustain peace on the Korean Peninsula.
U.S. policymakers should avoid linking the North Korea issue to other issues in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, including the trade war and Taiwan. Such linkage would be ineffective, likely create a host of new problems, and make the fundamental challenge of nuclear weapons in North Korea even more intractable.
The United States should continue to urge China to strictly enforce international sanctions imposed against North Korea until Washington and Beijing—as well as the international community—agree fully on a process for sanctions relief.
Washington and Beijing should discuss, in both bilateral and multilateral contexts, how to prevent a nuclear-armed North Korea—even one that is theoretically denuclearizing—from sparking a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the region. Inadequate consideration of Japan’s and South Korea’s security concerns, especially in regard to medium-range missiles, could strengthen the arguments of those in both countries who favor acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
U.S. policymakers should increase efforts to reduce frictions between Japan and South Korea, bearing in mind that some US strategic objectives, such as increasing Japan’s regional security role, contribute to these frictions. Widely divergent priorities among U.S. regional allies regarding negotiations on the Korean Peninsula will complicate—even undermine—U.S. strategy and create openings that China could exploit. Disputes between South Korea and Japan that are unrelated to North Korea could also compromise effective coordination.
If relations between Washington and Pyongyang return to heightened tensions but relations between the two Koreas continue to improve, it could create a rift in the Washington-Seoul alliance that Beijing could exploit. Washington must strive to remain as supportive as possible of Seoul’s approach to building a peace regime on the Peninsula, yet guard against excessive exuberance in the Blue House. Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul have a common agenda (inter-Korean dialogue and rapprochement) that might compromise U.S. preferences and leverage in the negotiating process.
Washington should also begin bilateral and multilateral conversations with Pyongyang, Seoul, and Beijing, and later with Tokyo and Moscow, on the contours of a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula. Given the many interests at stake, starting the conversation early to establish baseline understandings and work toward a consensus far in advance of formal negotiations will contribute to the sustainability of the final outcome.
If U.S.–North Korea talks remain stalled indefinitely or completely break down, Washington should work with Beijing to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. In that regard, it is important for China to believe that North Korea, not the United States, is primarily responsible for the impasse.
China’s Role in Myanmar’s Internal Conflicts
This report is the first in the Senior Study Groups (SSGs) series that USIP is convening to examine China's influence on conflict dynamics around the world. A group of thirteen experts met from February to June 2018 to assess China’s involvement in Myanmar’s internal conflicts, particularly those in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states, as well as China’s impact on Myanmar’s overall peace process.
Since gaining its independence from British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has faced ethnic division and conflict. For decades, an array of ethnic political movements and their armed wings have sought political, economic, cultural, and social rights as protection against domination by (majority) Burman authorities, even as the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) has asserted that its mission is to ensure the country’s sovereign independence, territorial integrity, and unity. Majority-minority ethnic relations and the distribution of power and resources have been the most serious problems since independence. Achieving mutual trust and a system of governance agreeable to all of Myanmar’s diverse peoples are the country’s defining challenges.
In northern Myanmar near the Chinese border, fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups has increased despite efforts to advance a comprehensive peace process that gained momentum under the Thein Sein government beginning in 2011. A Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by eight groups in October 2015, but most of the larger groups abstained, including those along Myanmar’s border with China. Under the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, progress has been slow: the peace process has stalled, confidence in it has fallen, and violence has increased, particularly in Kachin and northern Shan states along the Chinese border. Divisions between NCA signatories and nonsignatories have grown, the divide roughly corresponding to whether a group is located on the India or Thai border (signatories) or China border (nonsignatories). Several nonsignatory groups formed the Northern Alliance to strengthen their military and political power.
Driven by security concerns, economic interests, and a desire for political influence in a country with which it shares a 1,500-mile border, China is playing a key role in Myanmar’s internal security and peace process. Armed clashes between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups along the Myanmar-China border occasionally spill into China. The Chinese province of Yunnan has sheltered tens of thousands of refugees during periods of intense fighting in Myanmar. In 2013, China designated a special envoy, selected from among its most seasoned diplomats, to serve as lead point of contact and formal observer to Myanmar’s peace talks. This envoy, who changed in 2015, remains an important player in facilitating talks between the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the Myanmar government.
China has also come to the defense of the Myanmar government over the crisis in Rakhine State to the west, where the Tatmadaw has carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, against the mostly Muslim Rohingya population. China has protected Myanmar from sanctions at the United Nations and has offered rhetorical and material support for its handling of the so-called terrorist attacks. Furthermore, China has extensive economic interests in Rakhine, including a major port at Kyaukphyu, a planned special economic zone (SEZ), and a road, rail, and pipeline network to move energy and other materials and supplies from the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar to Yunnan Province.
For its part, the United States has long supported Myanmar’s reform process but has had a limited role in the peace process. This is in part—though by no means entirely—due to China’s explicit opposition to US engagement, particularly in areas along the Chinese border, and general concern about US influence in Myanmar. Myanmar will serve as the ultimate arbiter of any US involvement in its affairs. Nonetheless, assessing China’s role in and perspectives toward Myanmar’s internal conflicts may offer important insights into overall conflict dynamics inside the country and help inform potential US peace-support policies going forward.
China has set aside its stated adherence to the principle of noninterference to become more proactively and assertively involved in Myanmar’s peace process. It has made efforts to be directly involved in the primary conflict issues Myanmar faces and has sought to shape the decisions and choices of Myanmar’s various players. It has offered itself as a mediator in the conflict and pressured nonsignatory groups along its border to attend successive Union-level dialogues in Naypyidaw. As indicated, it has sought to limit the involvement of third countries (including the United States) in the peace process, despite the desire of several Myanmar groups for broader international engagement. In response to the Rohingya crisis, China has proposed principles and a process for resolution, and offered, unsuccessfully, to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh to resolve their disputes.
Myanmar considers China’s engagement to be constructive overall. Both government-affiliated and unofficial interlocutors, including those from ethnic groups, commented that China’s involvement in peace has not been unduly obstructive or harmful to the process to date. They note that Myanmar’s government has alternately resisted and welcomed China’s involvement as long as China helps promote Naypyidaw’s goals. Ethnic groups have responded similarly, although those along the border have few options but to accede to Chinese pressure.
Myanmar harbors questions about China’s ultimate motives, however. Myanmar observers have remarked that China ultimately benefits from neither hot war nor complete peace. Beijing seeks a reduction of fighting along its border to safeguard stability, maintain cross-border economic ties, and mitigate refugee flows. Cessation of fighting more broadly, including in Rakhine State, allows for its investments to proceed unobstructed, including strategic infrastructure projects linking Myanmar—and the Indian Ocean—to China under its Belt and Road Initiative and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
At the same time, genuine peace risks China’s strategic position in the country. Continued friction between central authorities and border populations provides Beijing a major source of influence over Naypyidaw. That leverage may be used, among other things, to prevent “unwelcome” influence of the United States in the country and thus the region. Genuine sustained peace also would weaken China’s influence over ethnic nationalities, particularly along the border. That includes the Wa people, who speak Chinese, trade in Chinese currency, and receive substantial support from China to maintain the thirty-thousand-person Wa army and political autonomy. Because China does not expect that real peace is possible for the foreseeable future, it calculates little cost to its generally constructive, if interested, role in Myanmar’s peace process.
China has demonstrated little interest in coordinating peace-support efforts with others. Successive Myanmar governments have sought to ensure the international community is coordinated in its support of the peace process. Ethnic groups have likewise sought united support for the goal of peace with justice. Although many mechanisms have been established to ensure such coordination, China has been notably absent from them. Beijing worked side by side with the United Nations as an official observer of the process under the Thein Sein government, but since 2012 has continued to operate independently—and opaquely—to help Myanmar address its internal challenges.
The Rohingya crisis has provided China an opportunity to reestablish its primacy among Myanmar’s foreign relationships, attract popular support in Myanmar, and assert its leadership in regional affairs. As Naypyidaw’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has strained its relations with the United States and other Western countries, China has buffered Myanmar from international pressure and taken steps to protect Myanmar from criticism and punitive actions in the United Nations Security Council. Beijing seeks to use its pro-government position on the Rohingya issue to win Naypyidaw’s support for China’s political and economic interests throughout the country, including development of the Kyaukphyu port and SEZ in Rakhine State.
Private actors within China and outside official control also contribute to conflict, including illicit cross-border trade and mercenary services. Largely illicit Chinese entities that traffic in Myanmar’s natural resources often act in concert with corrupt officials in the Myanmar government, military, and EAOs to fuel conflict in Kachin and Shan states. As a result, Chinese business actors provide revenue to conflict actors on both sides and help sustain Myanmar’s civil war. Chinese citizens, including retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, have reportedly sold their services as mercenaries for EAOs. There is no indication that officials in Beijing support, let alone sponsor, such activity.
China has strengthened central direction over Myanmar policy in the past decade, ensuring improved coordination and control of the diplomatic, military, and economic aspects of its relationship with Myanmar. In the past, Yunnan actors have tried to exploit vague central government directives on cross-border activity. However, Beijing has put Yunnan provincial authorities on a tighter leash, largely in response to crises along the border. It has also reduced the space previously accorded Yunnan’s provincial leadership in the Sino-Burmese relationship.
Even as Beijing strengthens ties with Myanmar’s government and military, a number of domestic factors will continue to constrain Chinese influence in the country. Myanmar, like other countries in Southeast Asia, seeks to avoid overreliance on any single country and to maintain a balance of power among large countries to enable it to maximize its leverage and defend against undue external influence in its affairs. Myanmar particularly worries about Chinese influence because of China’s size, power, and proximity, as well as the way China’s economic development projects have been carried out without due consideration for the well-being of Myanmar’s population and ecology. At the same time, Myanmar admires China’s rapid economic development, wants to benefit from Chinese trade and investment, and recognizes that geography is destiny and thus Myanmar must maintain a constructive relationship with its neighbor to secure its own long-term stability and development.
The United States should continue to support the complete and timely implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State (the “Annan Commission”) report in 2017. Among other things, the report’s recommendations called for citizenship verification, freedom of movement, and access to livelihoods for the Rohingya, and socioeconomic border security and socioeconomic development more broadly in Rakhine State. In the process, the US government should consider ways to both apply pressure and appropriately engage the Myanmar military in a way that empowers democratic institutions in Myanmar, moves toward resolution of the Rakhine crisis, and continues the progress of reform inside the country.
The US government should seek more open dialogue with Beijing about respective peace-support activities to avoid attitudes that could complicate an already difficult peace process and resolution of the Rakhine crisis.
At the same time, the United States should encourage China to support implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Commission, and to participate in broader international aid coordination initiatives related to the peace process and Rakhine State to maximize efficiency and improve effectiveness. That would require China to avoid viewing the United States and other nations’ engagement in Myanmar in zero-sum terms.
The US government should also encourage Beijing to be more transparent about its peace strategy and engagement with various players, including ethnic armed organizations along its border. In the process, China should avoid any actions or policies that obstruct or inhibit furtherance of peace inside Myanmar due to narrow consideration of its own national interests.
Finally, The US government should encourage Beijing to develop a framework for responsible investment in Myanmar’s conflict areas that takes into account the concerns of local communities and minimizes the potential to fuel conflict.