SINOGRAPH China walks fine line on Korea
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - It may all be a charade, a game of smoke and mirrors to conceal the usual 60-year-old North Korean brinkmanship: give me money, or I am going to pretend I will kill you while I starve my people to death. Yet, this time it may be different because many things within and outside of North Korea have changed.
Pyongyang threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the US. While technically the threat is not very real, since America has
plenty of defense against a possible North Korean nuclear attack, this is the latest act in a long series of provocations. Just days before, Pyongyang announced it had restarted a nuclear reactor that it had previously shut down as a result of the six-party talks. In fact, there has been a crescendo of provocations and escalating war rhetoric in recent weeks.
In just a few days, the North denounced the armistice that ended the war with the South in 1953, in response to sanctions the United Nations (including China) imposed after Pyongyang's third nuclear test. The US responded by sending a mission of two stealth B2 bombers to the North.
The test was the start of everything. Before and after it, China spared no criticism and offered friendly advice to Pyongyang to try to make it desist from its intentions and avert the present troubles. The crux of the matter was and is that China does not want North Korea to hijack Beijing's foreign policy to Pyongyang's advantage.
Over the weekend, President Xi Jinping said that no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain", in an apparent reference to North Korea. Although veiled, it was the strongest statement against Pyongyang ever uttered by a top Chinese leader.
In the same hours, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "we oppose provocative words and actions from any party in the region and do not allow trouble-making on China's doorstep".
On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry expressed "grave concern" at the rising tension and said China had asked North Korea to "ensure the safety of Chinese diplomats in North Korea, in accordance with the Vienna Convention and international laws and norms." Shortly before, Pyongyang had announced it could not guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats in North Korea after Wednesday.
As a result of this situation, in recent days Beijing has mobilized troops to the border with the North. This is not in preparation for an invasion, especially as China stressed that the armistice is still in force. But the movement indicates that Beijing has begun more seriously considering the possibility of the collapse of the North, something that was once a political taboo for China as it would disrupt the regional political order.
This taboo is almost as old as the People's Republic. Mao Zedong intervened in the Korean War, arguing that preventing American troops at the Chinese border was more important than conquering back Taiwan. Now, however, Taiwan has dramatically improved ties with Beijing, and so has South Korea, while war is no longer primarily fought with soldiers' boots on the ground. All these elements contribute to changing the geopolitical role of North Korea for Beijing.
Moreover, at this moment, the regional order has already been disrupted, calling for China to take a different approach in its foreign policy, including the crucial North Korean pawn. China has been edged by its neighbors on almost all its eastern borders. To the south, especially — but not only — in the South China Sea, China must contend with Vietnam and the Philippines; in the east, the Senkaku Islands with Japan. Yet in the meantime, the North Korea issue and the friction between South Korea and Japan over claims to the Takeshima Islands (similar to the Senkaku issue) have brought Beijing and Seoul closer together.
At this juncture, what has changed from the past is the ever closer cooperation between Beijing and Seoul, and then through South Korea, also with Washington.
Moreover, Washington indicated that greater cooperation with Beijing on North Korea would be helpful in creating a global rapprochement. If in fact China were able to get Pyongyang under control and solve the nuclear issue there, this could have a positive impact on bilateral relations, and thus on Washington's objective stand on all these questions.
In this sense, today's North Korea becomes the true hub of the multilateral relations that dominate all of Asia. This does not mean that China is keen on seeing the sudden and unpredictable collapse of North Korea, but Beijing can't no longer afford to put all its foreign policy apples in Pyongyang's basket, and thus it needs now more than ever to bring North Korea under control.
However, this is only a theoretical statement, and it is hard to see how this can be practically achieved while Pyongyang is escalating the tension according to its old game of brinkmanship. Can Beijing actually push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, as Joseph DeTrani wrote on this site last month? (See China can defuse North Korea time-bomb
, Asia Times Online, March 26, 2013.)
Some Chinese believe the North Korean nuclear test was actually aimed at China, not at South Korea or the US. They underscored that for the first time China and the US were informed at the same time about the experiment. In the past, China was informed first.
Pyongyang is tired of being used as a passive pawn in China's bigger foreign policy plans, and young leader Kim Jong-eun has to prove his mettle to the court of old generals and uncles supervising his new role. The ideal situation for Beijing would be a regime in Pyongyang that gives up its nuclear weapons and embraces wider economic reforms. If young Kim can do that, so much the better.
South Korea and Japan could be also amenable to this solution, as they are not eager to shoulder the huge burden of rebuilding backward North Korea. Reforms would help to boost growth in the North and give the South time to prepare for an eventual reunification. But will young Kim play along? So far he does not seem inclined to.
These elements add to the volatility of the situation. While brinkmanship is an old game in Pyongyang, the player, young Kim, is new at it, and he might make a wrong move or be held hostage by his advisers.
Furthermore, there could be other regional players in this game. If Beijing were to solve positively and effectively the Pyongyang issue, Japan's hand in the Senkaku dispute could become weaker. China would prove to the region and the world its ability to solve a very thorny situation, and this would make it harder not to consider its position on delicate border issues. Then, in order to avert any future Japanese misgivings, Beijing should work hard now to mend fences with Tokyo. The same would then also be true with the Philippines and Vietnam.
Here there is a very delicate historical lesson. In 1978, China intervened against Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to topple the blood-thirsty pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge regime. China acted with America's blessing to contain Hanoi's expansionist drive in Indochina. Yet 35 years later, Hanoi still hates Beijing for it, while it has reconciled with Washington.
China loves to think long-term and would hate to see North Korea (or a reunified Korea) turned into a second Vietnam. For these reasons, Beijing is walking a very fine line, but if Pyongyang escalates the situation, Beijing can't just follow - unless, of course, we are inclined to think it is only an elaborate charade.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org