It has grown apparent in recent months that the United States and China, while working to present a fairly unified front on the face of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, suffer from a lack of common ground when it comes to strategy in dealing with Kim’s regime.  American diplomats and defense officials have repeatedly called on China to increase the pressure it levies on the reclusive North Korean state, as China is the only nation on the planet with sufficient leverage to truly make Kim sweat.  China, for their part, have accused the United States of exacerbating tensions in the region through a broad military presence.

Despite the setbacks caused by the two Pacific powers failing to see eye to eye in their approach to North Korea, China released a “consensus document” over the weekend that establishes concrete, and common, goals the U.S. shares with China – an important step toward finding a unified, or at least less divided, route toward a denuclearized Kim regime.

The document, which was released by China’s state-owned media outlet Xinhua news agency, states that “Both sides reaffirm that they will strive for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Those three words, “complete, verifiable, and irreversible,” lay a foundation for what can be considered the terms by which international pressure, particularly as levied by America and China, could be reduced on Kim’s North Korean state.  The U.S. and many other countries have sanctions in place that have stifled North Korea’s economy, producing what many in the West hope is enough hardship to convince the state’s Supreme Leader to do away with his nuclear pursuits.

American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, echoed those same three important words in his own statement, delivered in Washington D.C. last Wednesday.

“The most acute threat in the region today is posed by the DPRK. We both call for complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we call on the DPRK to halt its illegal nuclear weapons program and its ballistic missile test as stipulated in the UN Security Council resolutions. We reaffirmed our commitment to implement in full all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” Tillerson said.

Tillerson, as well as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, participated in high-level talks with Chinese officials last week, in which the U.S. encouraged China to increase the amount of pressure they’re placing on Kim.  China has repeatedly claimed that they do not want to be the sole tool used to force Kim to reason, but because their trade deals with North Korea account for ninety percent of all import and export traffic from the small nation, they may be the only country with the leverage necessary.

The consensus document also places an emphasis on fully enforcing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, which some within the U.S. have accused China of being lax on, as well as the need to push for a diplomatic resolution.  It goes on to call for “upgraded” military-to-military exchanges between the U.S. and China along with upgraded notification mechanisms for military action, in order to limit the risk of “judgement errors” between parties from both nations’ militaries.

Tillerson also addressed the need for increased cooperation, and reduced tensions, between the U.S. and China’s rapidly developing military in the Pacific.

“An important part of our discussion about the next 40 years was the [sic] – was increasing mutual trust and working toward a long-term risk reduction effort between our two militaries and our government. Building on what we’ve done in the air and maritime spaces, U.S. and Chinese civilian and military teams start discussions in new areas of strategic concern like space, cyberspace, nuclear forces, and nonproliferation issues.” Tillerson said.

“We need to enhance stability and develop strong international standards in these areas, and we need China to play a major role.”

With China’s controversial claims over huge swaths of the South China Sea, a military that is currently undergoing a significant reorganization, modernization, and expansion, and willingness to oppose the United States on the international stage, concerns about the potential for conflict between the two nations have risen steadily in recent years.  Fears of a future conflict with China has served as one of the primary motivators (along with our stressed Russian relations) to modernize our own military infrastructure that has suffered from dwindling budgets amid constant combat operations over the last 16 years.

China and the U.S. appear to be making progress toward working together on the North Korea problem, but whether or not that will make any difference to Kim Jong Un is yet to be determined.


Image courtesy of the Department of Defense