BEIJING - Robert Gates looked the picture of a man at ease as he posed for the
press at the Great Wall of China. Commentators on state-controlled CCTV were at
pains to remark that the United States Defense Secretary's visit had improved
strategic trust, while China Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece,
claimed that "Gates positive attitude adds depth to talks".
None of those interpretations resonated with analysts who doubted the very
existence of "depth" on the China leg of Gates' whirlwind tour of Asia. Amid
all the buzz over the Chinese test-flying of a Stealth fighter, thinly veiled
and heavily charged mistrust was also palpable when Gates' Chinese counterpart,
General Liang Guanglie, reportedly rejected Gates' offer of setting up a
strategic defense dialogue parallel to the Strategic and
Economic Dialogue that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton currently
maintains with China.
China's support for North Korea was one of the stated high priorities for
Gates' visit. But the US apparently made no progress in advancing to the
negotiating table on the question of North Korean contingency that deals with
the important question of what the US and Chinese military would do in the case
of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula that resulted in an encounter between the
When there is a problem, US troops, currently stationed in South Korea, would
march upward north of the demilitarizes zone, and the Chinese People's
Liberation Army would enter from the north to march downward. If there was no
pre-agreement when the troops met, it would very likely lead to another Korean
War, analysts have warned.
Yet China so far has refused to talk about it, out of concern about angering
North Korea. "So far, I see little possibility of establishing such a crisis
management system regarding North Korea between the US and China," said Zhu
Feng, a security expert at Peking University in Beijing. The implication is
big. "Such a regiment will definitely signal Beijing's decision of abandoning
North Korea," said Zhu.
Given the high level of sensitivity, David Kang, a North Korea expert at
Dartmouth College, said even Gates in his very conspicuous visit to China would
have been careful about tossing that onto the table, if he even did. "Even in a
private, off-the-record meeting, I would be really surprised if Gates had
brought up the possibility of North Korea collapsing. It's very sensitive to
everyone involved," Kang said.
"I don't think China is going to discuss it," echoes Charles Freeman, head of
China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a
Washington-based think-tank. "The matter is too sensitive."
It has virtually become a taboo topic. "Even at a think-tank level, China has
been very reticent to discuss it," said Bruce Klingner, former Central
Intelligence Agency analyst on Korean affairs and now a senior fellow with the
But a growing number of scholars and mostly non-Chinese experts point out that
the sensitive matter should be on the table and it would be good for both
"If a crisis breaks out in North Korea and we are not prepared, then we will be
ill-equipped to respond," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow and a colleague of
Freeman. "It's just self-evident that if you want to conduct a disaster relief,
you have to know who are the organizations you're going to be working with. You
might have to pre-position supplies. You have to talk in advance about the
division of labor," said Glaser.
"The South Korean and the US forces are well-prepared. We have many different
plans. We are always updating our plans. But we're not prepared to deal with
China," added Glaser.
China fears that even if it does it quietly, North Korea would find out, and it
would aggravate and alienate North Korea from China. Beijing fears it would
lose its influence with North Korea by doing so and doesn't want to take the
risk, observers say.
Importantly, analysts also say China fears that talking about North Korea's
collapse would become a "self-fulfilling prophecy". That is, if they talk about
the contingency plan, it would actually bring out a crisis.
Lu Chao, an expert on Korea affairs at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences
near the China-North Korean border, points out there is another reason. "All
these so-called 'preparations' are based on the premise that North Korea will
collapse some day," said Lu. "This premise doesn't square with reality." He
argued that despite the unsavory Western and South Korean reports about the
sorry living conditions in North Korea, people's lives there have been
gradually improving over the years. So, "basically, Beijing doesn't think the
chance of North Korean collapsing is big," said Zhu.
Beijing's keeping mum is also strategic. "China doesn't want to give away its
strategic thinking. They may not be willing to let the US know what its trigger
points for interventions are. They gain advantage by keeping the US guessing as
to what would cause China to intervene," said Klingner.
"It's like, ‘Don't ask, don't tell'," said Zhu.
Beijing's shying away from openly discussing the matter with the US essentially
boils down to a lack of trust between the two sides, as seen in so many other
bilateral issues between the superpowers.
Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia
Foundation, said: "To have that discussion, the level of trust should be very
high. But it has not yet been developed. The Chinese government has not yet
made a decision whether it's possible to have such kind of discussion."
China's agreeing to have that discussion would also indicate that China will
support and accept the consequences of the end-product of the North Korean
crisis, which is unification of the two Koreas. "It's not clear at this stage
what China's position is. That's why it's important to have that kind of
discussion," said Snyder.
China's mistrust on the US is one problem, but for Kang at Dartmouth, China
also has concerns about South Korea's ability to handle the post-crisis
rebuilding of dismantled North Korea. China particularly fears the possible
swarm of North Korean refugees, some of them armed with weapons, entering
China's northeastern region and disrupting China's stability.
Kang said South Korea so far lacked readiness to handle the collapse of North
Korea "If you imagine the difficulties the US has had after Iraq, with all of
the tasks that go into it. Not just the day of the collapse where you secure
the nuclear weapons and disarm the military. But how you also deal with the
public health system, the need for people to have running water, electricity,
and an educational system, to transitional justice. The South Korean government
has to think about that kind of thing. But there is no well-though-out plan to
deal with them," Kang said.
While Beijing is unwilling to discuss the matter with the US or with South
Korea, it is widely believed that Beijing at least has its own emergency plan
over a possible crisis in North Korea. The problem is that, again, it doesn't
share with other countries.
"We have our own emergency plan. There's no doubt such a plan has existed for
years," said Zhu at Peking University.
But Zhu also said the US and South Korea were overly concerned about a
situation that has yet to materialize, and highly unlikely to transpire any
time soon. "Of course we will inevitably seek corroboration with South Korea
and the US. It won't be a unilateral response by China. For the time being
though, I don't think Chinese leaders have the idea that North Korea will
collapse any time soon," assured Zhu.
Sunny Lee (email@example.com) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.