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Amid Nuclear Threats, UN Provides Platform to Advance U.S.-China Relations

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In the wake of newly-passed UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang has issued a new batch of heated rhetoric nearly every day. But beyond the threats--directed largely at the U.S. and South Korea--something equally headline-worthy is transpiring.

Through what has undoubtedly been a tireless effort, the United States brokered a successful negotiation via the United Nations to further isolate the DPRK and, at the same time, opened new doors for multilateral engagement with China.

Barely more than six months ago, Chinese state media hailed North Korea as a smart place to invest. North Korea's biggest trading partner had openly helped to sustain what is now Kim Jong-un's regime. Yet, days ago, China agreed to international sanctions that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warns will "bite and bite hard."

The DPRK's giant neighbor has been slow to anger and still remains its most critical ally. Yet, following Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February, China has now thrown its support behind these forceful and aggressive UN provisions.

Specifically, the sanctions call on the global community to block monetary transfers--even if money is literally being carried in suitcases full of bulk cash--to prevent North Korea from moving money to pay for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Further, Rice has said that North Korean banks will find it much harder to launder money for the DPRK nuclear program. The UN sanctions also impose new travel restrictions.

To be fair, China's enforcement of previous sanctions has been spotty to date. A December 2010 report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service found that Chinese exports of banned luxury goods averaged around $11 million per month in 2009. Yet, the events over the last week have pointed toward optimistic signs for multilateral solidarity.

Take, for example, North Korea's latest declaration that the Korean War armistice is "null and void." China is also a signatory to this agreement. Rather than suggest any intent or willingness to advance its nullification, Beijing has instead stated support for the armistice. As Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said earlier this week, "the Korean armistice agreement plays an important role in safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

So, have we truly reached a turning point? The United States and China no doubt share a common interest in nuclear nonproliferation. Indeed, as Rice affirmed upon passage of the sanctions, "the entire world stands united in our commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in our demand that North Korea comply with its international obligations."

And though it remains to be seen whether or not China will live up to this latest commitment, the cooperative exercises under the auspices of the Unites Nations marks an important diplomatic achievement. As notes Orville Schell of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, what ends up being most significant about the Security Council action "may not be what it amounts to in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK, but what it portends for U.S.-China relations... It may well represent the most significant gesture China has made toward Washington in recent years of wanting to reset the bilateral relationship."

In the months to come, the U.S. will do well to continue using its heft on the Security Council to maintain pressure on China--and the global community--to enforce these important sanctions. Certainly, this strategy executed through the United Nations has yielded meaningful progress already.