Friday, October 24, 2014

Friendless China

HONG KONG – At a time when China’s territorial assertiveness has strained its ties with many countries in the region, and its once-tight hold on Myanmar has weakened, its deteriorating relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, renders it a power with no real allies. The question now is whether the United States and other powers can use this development to create a diplomatic opening to North Korea that could help transform northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics.

China’s ties with Myanmar began to deteriorate in late 2011, when Myanmar decided to suspend work on its largest and most controversial Chinese-aided project: the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The decision shocked China, which had been treating Myanmar as a client state – one where it retains significant interests, despite today’s rift.

The bold decision to halt the dam project may have hurt Myanmar’s relationship with China, but it was a positive step for its relations with the rest of the world. Indeed, a major political shift followed, bringing about the easing of longstanding Western sanctions and ending decades of international isolation.

By distancing himself from China, North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, could well be signaling a desire to move in a similar direction. Of course, if he is seeking a thaw in relations with the US, he has a long way to go. His welcoming of former American basketball star Dennis Rodman has generated only controversy in the US, and his apparent execution by machine-gun of a former girlfriend (as reported by a South Korean paper, citing unnamed sources in China) is no way to endear oneself to the American heartland.

For most observers, the episode that triggered the deterioration in China’s relationship with North Korea – the execution of Kim’s uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek – simply reflected North Korea’s erratic and obscure politics. For China, however, it was personal. The treason charges leveled against Jang – China’s most valued friend in North Korea’s regime – included underselling resources like coal, land, and precious metals to China.

But China’s carefully nurtured “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring almost since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. In an early show of defiance, North Korea seized three Chinese fishing boats, detained a reported 29 people on board for 13 days (during which they were allegedly abused), and then demanded $190,000 in compensation for illegal fishing in North Korean waters. Kim went on to rile China further by carrying out his country’s third nuclear test.

Unsurprisingly, China’s state-run media have responded to Kim’s attempts to chart an independent course by accusing him of pursuing the “de-Sinification” of the hermit kingdom. But, beyond an anti-Kim propaganda campaign, China’s options are limited, not least because it has a strong interest in retaining access to North Korea’s vast reserves of iron ore, magnesite, copper, and other minerals – just as it retains access to Myanmar’s massive and undeveloped reserves.

More important, any Chinese attempt to squeeze North Korea, including by cutting off energy and food supplies, would risk triggering a mass influx of refugees. Worse, from China’s perspective, it could bring about the collapse of the Kim family’s rule, which could unravel the North Korean state and lead to a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the US. The prospect of US troops on its border is a nightmare scenario for China.

Moreover, a reunified Korea would inherit ongoing territorial and resource disputes with China (concerning, for example, Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu, and islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers). China would likely accept reunification only if it led to a “Finlandized” Korea that offers permanent strategic concessions to the superpower next door.

Like North Korea today, Myanmar was, until recently, an isolated, militaristic country suffering under prolonged and escalating international sanctions. In fact, reflecting its growing frustration with Kim, China co-sponsored the most recent round of United Nations sanctions against North Korea last year.

But, whereas Myanmar is a diverse society that has long been ravaged by internal conflicts pitting ethnic-Burmese governing elites against many of the country’s minority groups, North Korea is a homogenous, regimented, and nuclear-armed society. In other words, North Korea is a far more potent threat to the rest of the world.

Still, the China-North Korea rift marks a potential turning point in northeast Asian geopolitics. If the US is to seize the diplomatic opening, it must shed its reliance on the Chinese to serve as its intermediary with North Korea – a sore point with the Kim regime, given its desire to reduce its dependence on China.

Unlike the US opening with Myanmar, which led to US President Barack Obama’s historic visit in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to be based on reaching a denuclearization agreement. The question is whether Obama – who is weighed down not only by domestic woes, but also by efforts to reach an agreement on Syria and an interim nuclear deal with Iran – has the political room or personal inclination to enter into risky negotiations with North Korea.

Read more from "China's Challenges"

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  1. CommentedHarsh Ray

    China is indeed friendless. Yet U.S. policy continues to build up China. Far from seizing the Sino-North Korean rift to isolate China, Washington's fixation on Russia plays into Beijing's hands.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Chellaney, you might be disappointed that China is not so "friendless" after all. In fact it does co-operate with antagonists, when common interests are shared. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart are working on North Korea to rein in its nuclear programme.
    The Burmese government suspended the long planned and highly controversial hydroelectric Myitsone Dam in the face of growing public opposition. It listened to its people, who feared China's growing influence in Myanmar.
    The Burmese are emerging from their isolation after years of economic sanctions imposed by the EU and the US. Only China, India and South Korea had invested in the country. China is still Myanamar's main ally. Last July a fully operational gas pipeline was launched between the two countries, which had partially started supplying gas to China's southwest regions.
    Is North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Un really "distancing himself from China"? He might enjoy flexing his muscles and irking China, he is definitely not "signaling a desire to move in a similar direction" as Myanmar. Kim is a preposterous brat and it's not clear, how much power he wields. On the contrary Myanamar's President Thein Sein is seen as a moderate and a reformist. Since he became president, there have been undeniable moves towards political liberalisation.
    Mr. chellaney, you might be the only person who asserts Kim's "independent course" as a “de-Sinification” of North Korea. Korea had been conquered by China 2000 years ago. It adopted Confucianism in the 14th century. Otherwise it has always had its own culture.
    The relationship between North Korea and China is not cordial and Beijing's interests in the "hermit kingdom" are not altruistic. Nevertheless both China and the US are keen to see an evolution in North Korea rather than a revolution, due to the vagaries of uncertainties. South Korea dreads the economic burden of a reunification. Whether the unravelling of North Korea would lead to a "reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the US", or a “Finlandized" Korea in China's backyard, that "offers permanent strategic concessions to the superpower next door" is up to the Koreans to decide.

  3. CommentedThinking Indian

    China has become so powerful that no country would like to confront them openly. However, China's neighbors & developed world (those who matter) do not love China from heart. It is the problem countries (Pakistan, Iran, Belarus & even North Korea) who admire China greatly.

  4. CommentedKumbha Kumbha

    China shall have no ally and so India too, these two nations have no common historical chord with rest of the world. Religion is the most common and strong chord, Muslim nations feel allied with each other naturally and so do the christian nations even though they may not have ancestral relations.
    China with its enormous size and now large economy and strong military may not feel compelled to nurture allies. fortunately for China its neighbors are neither Islamic or Christian nations who would not really mind if China push them to submission.
    It is suppressing Tibet who can only be related to India with a chord but unfortunately India is left far behind in economically and militarily. India is finding hard even to defend itself and can not raise voice against China.
    I would request the author to say same words for India.

  5. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the article saw a chink in the armory of the ``cabbage strategy`` . the Chinese maneuvers were elusively adept in avoiding a regional gang up.the soundings detected by this essay is worthy of hearing.

  6. CommentedJeff GE

    This is a very narrow-minded article. It is no longer a black and white, enemy vs friend but an interdependent world. The idea that US should use the diplomatic opening to contain a rising China is so yesterday.

  7. CommentedS. Bait

    According to Xinhua, PRC has many friends all over the world. Just count them...

      CommentedJeff GE

      China does have many trading partners all over the world, including US and those countries that have territorial disputes. Let us not get carried away.