Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 4, 2013. Photo credit: Reuters/Lintao Zhang
On Tuesday, March 9th, the Georgetown Center for Security Studies hosted an event entitled: “Security Around the World: U.S.-China Competition and the Korean Peninsula.” This event focused on the ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and potential outcomes of U.S.-China strategic competition in the region.
The conversation was moderated by SSP alum Markus V. Garlauskas. Garlauskas is a former National Intelligence Officer for North Korea and current non-resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security of the Atlantic Council.
Garlauskas was joined by Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Glaser served at the Department of Defense and State, and her work focuses on Chinese security and strategy, as well as U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific.
Garlauskas began by welcoming Glaser and explaining that the purpose of the dialogue was to outline “Chinese interests and goals vis-à-vis North and South Korea” in order to gain insight into how exactly “China views the Peninsula and what China’s goals are.” Garlauskas then asked Glaser to provide context on the relations and strategic interests in the region.
Glaser explained that the U.S. and China had workable diplomatic relations in the past. However, this is now “falling by the wayside” as tensions between the two states intensify. For China, the goal is to “maximize influence and leverage over North and South Korea,” according to Glaser.
Beijing’s posture of prominence and influence in Asia-Pacific is the driving force for Chinese relations on the Peninsula. This strategic posture enables China to tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. However, Glaser argues that China’s strategy in the region is more impacted by outside responses to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, like the United States’, than the threat of the program itself.
Next, Garlauskas discussed South Korea’s relations with and the U.S. and China. Garlauskas explained that the relationship between Seoul and Beijing is increasingly complicated. While South Korea maintains robust economic ties with China, the South Korean Air Force base in Seongju—200 miles outside of Seoul—and the 2017 decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)[i] system to South Korea generated tensions with China and North Korea.
Though Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea, supported the deployment of the THAAD system, the administration is weary of undertaking actions that would “antagonize China,” according to Garlauskas. Garlauskas also noted that some in Washington even question whether South Korea is truly an ally of the U.S. given its failure to openly side with the U.S. against China.
He then explained it would be challenging for South Korea to openly denounce China due to its economic ties with Beijing, as well as the security threat posed by military and economic relations between North Korea and China. Garlauskas next asked Glaser: as North and South Korean relations continue to evolve, how has the U.S. approach changed?
Glaser stated that we are seeing longer-term consequences regarding South Korea’s approach to China. She believes that South Korea is “forced to choose between China and U.S.” After the THAAD system was deployed in South Korea, China used coercive economic tactics, including discouraging Chinese tourists to visit South Korea and increasing trade regulations and monitoring, to incentivize Seoul to move away from THAAD.[ii]
The restrictions imposed by Beijing, following the deployment of THAAD, led Seoul to issue a trade violation complaint to the World Trade Organization.[iii] The backlash of China’s response reveals Beijing is willing to use its economic advantage to coerce South Korea to align with the interests of Beijing.
Notably, U.S. sanctions that were imposed against North Korea in 2017 did lead to “better sanction enforcement from China,” Glaser explained. This started to deteriorate in 2018, however, as North Korea began importing illicit products with China’s support. According to Glaser, this undermines the overall effectiveness of the sanctions regime against North Korea.
Glaser explained that Chinese experts predict North Korean non-nuclear provocations in the coming months. She argued the strength of Beijing’s diplomatic reaction, subsequent to the forecasted demonstrations of North Korea, would indicate the probability of increased partnership between the Biden administration and Xi Jinping.Importantly, Glaser emphasized that China’s support for North Korea is on Beijing’s terms: Beijing provides limited aid to North Korea in order to maintain its leverage.
Garlauskas explained the margin of error in response to the provocations of North Korea is vast. He posed a strategic dilemma: “If the U.S. responds [to provocations of North Korea] then China will think we are overreacting. If [there is] no response, North Korea will continue.”
“The potential for preemptive intervention by China is higher than it used to be,” Glaser said. Glaser then highlighted that the longstanding bilateral defense treaty between China and North Korea is set to be renewed this year.[iv] Though Glaser posited that the alliance will most likely continue, she mentioned there is an ongoing conversation about changing the treaty language, so China is not obligated to support and intervene in North Korea if a conflict does arise.
Prior to the conclusion of the event, Garlauskas and Glaser engaged the audience by fielding their questions and further elaborating on the uncertainty posed by the growing competition in the region.
However, the relevance of the conversation extends beyond the strategic competition between the United States and China in the Korean Peninsula. It is important to consider what this strategic competition means for the future of diplomacy, especially as China continues to become more influential across the globe.
As explained during the event, Beijing sees its relations with North and South Korea as a priority. The rising tension in the region and increasing economic interdependence on China are a hallmark of the geostrategic environment of the Asia-Pacific region. If the bilateral defense alliance between China and North Korea is renewed with altered language, this could mark a significant shift in Sino-North Korean relations.
Moreover, the backlash of the deployment of THAAD reveals Beijing’s willingness to use tactics to coerce economically interdependent countries to align with its interests. This tactic of coercion may be employed by China with other economically interdependent states that fail to align with the interests of Beijing. This may jeopardize the mobility of economic resources and impact global trade as the economic influence and presence of Beijing has already circumferenced the globe.[v]
The Biden administration and Xi Jinping should increase dialogue and strive to align on strategic priorities. An increase in joint U.S.-China diplomacy and strategy could promote increased regional security and prevent the likelihood of miscalculation when responding to the forecasted provocations of North Korea later this year.
[i] “THAAD on the Korean Peninsula,” Institute for Security & Development Policy, October 2017, https://isdp.eu/publication/korea-thaad/
[ii] Darren J Lim, “Chinese Economic Coercion during the THAAD Dispute,” The Asan Forum, December 28, 2019,
[iii] Christine Kim, Jane Chung, “South Korea complains to WTO over China response to missile system” Reuters, March 19, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-china-thaad/south-korea-complains-to-wto-over-china-response-to-missile-system-idUSKBN16R03D
[iv] Anny Boc, “Does China’s ‘Alliance Treaty’ With North Korea Still Matter?” The Diplomat, July 26, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/does-chinas-alliance-treaty-with-north-korea-still-matter/
[v] Tarun Chhabra, Rush Doshi, Ryan Hass, Emilie Kimball, “Global China: Regional influence and strategy,” Brooking, July 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/global-china-regional-influence-and-strategy/