Beijing rethinks its North Korea policy priorities
Thursday, 11 April, 2013, 12:00am
Comment?Insight & Opinion
Paul Letters says China is learning to strike a balance between its worry over a nuclear North Korea and displeasure at the US presence in Asia
Paradoxically, in order for Beijing to achieve its current objectives in the Korean Peninsula of stability and, moreover, a downsizing of the United States' presence, it must concede to displays of American military might in the region.
It may be hard for pro-Western governments to comprehend, but China has long preferred Stalinism on its border to the likely alternative - an extension of US imperialism through a reunified Korea. China's preference for a bumper between itself and the US vassal state of South Korea echoes the Soviet Union's Eastern European buffer states, in place until the cold war was over. The Korean cold war is far from over.
Following North Korea's angry reaction to last month's extension of UN sanctions, the US proceeded with joint US-South Korean military exercises, replying to harsh words with hardware. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to South Korea on Friday, before visiting Beijing at the weekend, and we can expect him to add his voice to the argument that it is in Beijing's interests to align with pro-Western powers on this issue.
In the absence of US-backed security guarantees, North Korean leaders see their nuclear threat as their only deterrent to prevent attack from encircling powers, a view China understands. Although Pyongyang has become more of a liability in recent years, Beijing blames Washington for offering North Korea little choice regarding security, other than the nuclear route. While Beijing appeals for calm by all parties, it is aiming to get the US out of the peninsula.
America's increased military clout in the region is in part designed to spur China into action, such as more rigorous prevention of sanctioned goods departing over the border into North Korea.
But China faces a dilemma. It fears nuclearisation in the North but equally this could happen in the South, in response to Pyongyang's ongoing provocations. In effect, it already has: America's pledge to protect South Korea includes the possible use of nuclear weapons. The 1974 agreement prevents South Korea from developing nuclear weapons - but its government is pushing to renegotiate the terms, and its people stand boldly behind it.
Since February and North Korea's third nuclear test, Beijing has seen enough of Pyongyang's deaf ear, has backed international sanctions and is now reconsidering certain policy priorities: the objectives of denuclearisation, a stable status quo and the maintenance of a traditional friendship are no longer all achievable, if they ever were. And Washington is demonstrating to Beijing that if it cannot or will not play a key role in restraining Pyongyang, a strong American presence in China's backyard is inevitable.
China is showing its mettle - with words, at least. In clear criticism of China's long-standing ally, President Xi Jinping said last weekend that no country in Asia "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain".
And sometimes a lack of words helps. The absence of protest over the current US deployment of warships and aircraft to the peninsula underlines Beijing's growing frustration with North Korea and increasing desire to meet the US half way.
China caught in a dilemma over crisis with North Korea
Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
KOREAN PENINSULA: ANALYSIS
Teddy Ng firstname.lastname@example.org
Leadership will not abandon Pyongyang but giving Kim Jong-un free rein is not an option. China and the US may try to contain him
Analysts say China is adopting a flexible approach to the United States strengthening its presence in Asia to exert pressure on North Korea because Beijing has only limited options to deal with its reclusive neighbour.
Beijing has recently toughened its rhetoric towards Pyongyang as tensions in the Korean Peninsula rise following provocative moves by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but analysts say the Chinese leadership will not abandon its ally because that would cost Beijing a strategically important role on the peninsula.
China alone cannot solve the crisis. China is not the superpower that people sometimes think it is. They don't hold the key, but they are the key player
However, leaving Pyongyang unchecked is also not an option as Beijing is under international pressure to contain the crisis.
"China is unwillingly caught up in the crisis," said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Yonsei University in Seoul. "China alone cannot solve the crisis. China is not the superpower that people sometimes think it is. They don't hold the key, but they are the key player."
China has already sided with Washington in imposing United Nations Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang after its third nuclear test in February.
But tensions on the Korean Peninsula have continued to rise, with Pyongyang warning of a war and looking set to test a missile. The crisis is expected to be centre stage at talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese officials in Beijing this weekend.
Beijing, which has criticised the US pivot to Asia as an effort to contain China, normally does not want to see Washington interfering in regional affairs.
But analysts said China had refrained from tough anti-American remarks after the US approved the sale of fighter jets to South Korea and launched a joint military exercise with Seoul last month.
"Beijing is embarrassed to criticise the US this time as the situation in the Korean Peninsula will be more chaotic if Beijing gives strong back-up to Pyongyang," said Edward Chen I-hsin, a political analyst at Taiwan's Tamkang University.
"Beijing will instead let Pyongyang learn a lesson first, and then Pyongyang may be willing to go back to negotiation."
Pang Zhongying, who is a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China and the US may see whether they can co-operate to contain Pyongyang. "China needs a stable environment, and the US presence in the region can help achieve that, even though some believe the US is hegemonic," he said.
Showing Beijing's dismay at the path Kim is treading, President Xi Jinping said on Sunday that no country should be allowed to cause chaos "for selfish gain". Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would not allow trouble-making on its doorstep and ministry spokesman Hong Lei delivered a similar warning.
June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami, said it's a delicate issue for Beijing because Kim's actions gives Japan reasons to strengthen its military power.
Beijing fears that Kim might force the US to remove him from power - a scenario that would see North Korea lose its status as a buffer zone that keeps foreign forces from China's border and gives Beijing more influence in the region. "China does not want to go so far as to destabilise North Korea," she said.
Despite supporting the UN sanctions, China has never disclosed what it has done to implement them. Dreyer also said China might not cut food and fuel aid to North Korea, because that could lead to North Koreans fleeing to China.