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US-China relations through the North Korea looking glass

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

North Korea - the ultimate testing ground for US-China relations?North Korea - the ultimate testing ground for US-China relations?


Former New Zealand Defence Minister Wayne Mapp analyses the current state of US-China relations in the context of recent disputes with North Korea. Does the rogue state provide the ultimate litmus test for relations between the two great powers, or does it merely force the US to accept that its relationship with China is now a relationship of equals?


The North Korean dispute brings into sharp focus the evolving nature of the China-United States relationship. Do the two great nations of our region intend to act in mutual collaboration in the interests of Asia-Pacific stability? Or does it signal a new phase of sharp strategic competition between them?

Whilst the nature of the China-United States relationship was also central during the Obama administration there was a general acceptance that they would avoid sharply antagonistic actions. Thus North Korean testing of missiles and nuclear weapons did not raise the prospect of military actions against North Korea.

We now seem to be in a new era. The Trump administration seems determined to roll back North Koreas ambitions. It has not ruled out military force to do so. It has proposed sweeping sanctions, including an oil embargo and a virtual prohibition on any exports.

More significantly the Trump administration seems to expect that China will be the honest broker in resolving the crisis. And that China would acquiesce, albeit reluctantly, in the prospect of military action against North Korea. It is hard to imagine that the Trump administration is so naïve to believe that China is actually so pliable.

The United States knows that China lost as many as 400,000 soldiers in defending North Korea in 1951 to 1953. They know that North Korea is an ally of China. In such circumstances the United States must know that military action against North Korea would be testing Chinese tolerance, possibly beyond the limit.

Perhaps it is best to examine the entrails of the recent China-United States summit.

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Mar de Largo was particularly interesting for what was not said about the discussions. President Trump had indicated prior to the meeting that it would be his toughest yet, but you would not know that from the publicly disclosed information about the meeting. Following the meeting the United States announced it did not regard China as a currency manipulator. The implication was that the Chinese United States bilateral trade flows would be unaffected. And that China would act co-operatively in solving the North Korean crisis.


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China is a rising power, second only to the United States. China has its own agenda in respect of the Korean peninsula. The solution that China seeks will not be the same as the United States would want. Rather than corralling North Korea, they want a general peace settlement on the peninsula. De-nuclearisation of the peninsula would mean the withdrawal of most United States troops back to Japan.

For China, being a co-guarantor with the United States of such a settlement would be a major strategic achievement. The United States would have also achieved one of its major objectives, but at a price. They would have had to accept China as an equal power.

The United States may well see this as an unpalatable outcome. Even since the end of World War Two the United States has been the pre-eminent power in the region. To have to acknowledge China as a co-equal within the region will not be easy for United States policy makers.

Arguably the most dangerous transition in international relations is a dominant power having to accept that it has co-equals. Typically the rising power strains hard at the leash to upset the status quo. Often in that past that has resulted in war. But the contemporary era is different. All the major powers have nuclear weapons. They cannot contemplate serious military action against each other.

The North Korean dispute has raised the interesting prospect of the United States accepting China as an co-equal in securing stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

If that is an outcome, even if it takes time to fully emerge, other nations in the region might find this reassuring. If the two major powers of the Asia-Pacific can resolve the most challenging issues within the region then that bodes well for a general reduction of interstate rivalry.

The predictable state of stability that has prevailed with the Asia-Pacific for the last forty years will be able to continue, to the general advantage of all states in the region. The last forty years has seen the greatest increase in prosperity for hundreds of millions of people within the Asia-Pacific that the world has even seen. This has been dependent on peace and stability within the region. It is in all our interests that even as power relationships change, this state of affairs continues.


Hon Dr Wayne Mapp QSO was New Zealand’s Minister of Defence and Minister of Science and Innovation from 2008 to 2011. He was appointed to the New Zealand Law Commission in February 2012.


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