Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated March 8 Beijing's call for the United States and North Korea to step back from a path toward "collision," urging Pyongyang to suspend nuclear tests and the United States to suspend large scale military drills with South Korea. The comments echo North Korea's over the past few years and support its offer to suspend nuclear tests if the United States and South Korea suspend their military exercises. The United States has largely shrugged off such suggestions in the past, arguing that North Korea is insincere, and that suspending exercises would undermine the U.S. alliance with South Korea and weaken an ally's sense of security.
For China, the comments are a low-cost way to appear to be the sane voice in the room, while the United States and North Korea are seen as the belligerents. Chinese state media has often not-so-subtly suggested that North Korea's nuclear and missile programs are a direct response to the U.S. military presence and military exercises in South Korea: in other words, that the primary source of instability in the Asia-Pacific is the United States. While this information campaign may not fundamentally alter the direction governments take in the region, it fits in the broader Chinese narrative.
With the United States finalizing its review of policy options to address North Korea, Washington has undoubtedly looked at a potential suspension of exercises, possible talks with the North, and, at the other end of the spectrum, pre-emptive military strikes on the North's nuclear and missile facilities. It is no longer any secret that the United States is already engaged in covert operations to disrupt North Korean missile and nuclear developments. But most signs indicate that the review will lead to increased sanctions and sanctions enforcement, increased isolation, increased missile defense in and around Korea, and increased pressure on China to rein in the North. Reduced military exercises or talks with the North are just not on the table for the immediate future.
The challenge for China and the United States is that most viable options to stem North Korea's nuclear and missile programs have potentially extreme political and military costs. China is not prepared to break the back of the North Korean leadership, as that would both destabilize its own border region and reverse its global policy of refraining from direct intervention. Nor is it likely to include North Korea under its nuclear umbrella, as this would solidify a sense of competing blocs in Northeast Asia. The United States sees talks as capitulation and military actions as potentially disastrous for South Korea and possibly Japan with no guaranteed gain. In the end, Washington and Beijing will continue to try to shape perception, while maintaining status-quo policies. For now, the risk of changing policies outweighs the possible reward.