BEIJING – The release by WikiLeaks of American diplomatic cables written between 2004 and 2010 contains considerable material on China’s policy toward North Korea. The leaks supposedly unveil a Chinese readiness to accept the reunification of Korea in favor of South Korea. This proposition almost beggars belief because it starkly contradicts China’s actions in failing to openly condemn North Korea for its sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, or for the recent artillery attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island.
Similarly, rather than demand that North Korea stop its brinkmanship, China’s leaders have called for emergency consultations involving the United States, Japan, Russia, China, the United Nations, and South Korea. None of these actions suggest a willingness to make the North Korean regime pay the price it deserves for its provocations.
So why doesn’t China move more decisively to rein in North Korea? The conventional wisdom is that China doesn’t want to lose North Korea as a buffer between it and the US military in South Korea. Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms. Indeed, the controversy in Chinese eyes is not really about Korean reunification – few in Beijing speculate that the endgame will be otherwise – but to what extent reunification can be achieved without damaging China’s security concerns.
Every time North Korea acts provocatively – testing nuclear bombs, launching missiles, touting its secretive uranium enrichment facilities, and killing South Korean soldiers and civilians – China comes under diplomatic fire. Its chronic indecisiveness about the North and unwillingness to use its leverage, thus shielding its socialist ally, seems to reveal to the wider world a China obsessed with its own narrow interests.
But these interests are hard to quantify. The volume of China’s trade with South Korea is almost 70 times that with the North. Thus, if China truly is the mercantilist power that many in the West claim, it should tilt decisively towards the South.
Moreover, China has no interest in stoking a “new Cold War” in East Asia, so it should be enthusiastic about the cause of denuclearization and thus play a bigger role in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear provocations. The irony is that Chinese dithering has incited Cold War-type concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the US. Indeed, given its lack of confidence in China’s readiness and willingness to keep the North in check, South Korea is now seeking even deeper defensive ties with the US, as well as enhancing its political and defense cooperation with Japan.
If North Korea fails to restrain itself, and China’s approach remains tantamount to coddling a dangerous, nuclear-armed state, strategic rivalry across East Asia might revive around a Washington-Tokyo-Seoul axis vis-à-vis a China-North Korea coalition. Not surprisingly, that prospect offers scant comfort to China.
And yet China seems to turn a blind eye to it all. Unfortunately, China’s obsolete ideology plays a key role here. Although China claims that it “normalized relations” with North Korea in 2009, its policies and attitudes toward the North remain mired in a morbid comradeship. For example, in October, on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (the likely successor to President Hu Jintao) dubbed the conflict a glorious fight against a “US-initiated invasion.”
A majority of Chinese dislike Kim Jong-il’s dynastic Leninist regime. And the two countries have diverged enormously in political, economic, and social terms. Yet China’s leaders remain incapable of seeming to abandon the North, no matter how odious its behavior. Their diplomatic values, after all, were shaped by an official emphasis on sympathy for the weak in any struggle against the strong, and by comradely reminiscences about the North – far and away the weakest of the participants in the six-party negotiations over the North nuclear armaments with the US, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.
In the end, Chinese outrage at North Korea usually gives way to refusal to play any part in the demise of its neighbor and one-time ally. More than one Chinese official has told me of holding hearty affection for North Korea’s people. China’s leaders recognize that North Korea is a huge burden for them, but, like loving parents of a rogue son, they cannot bring themselves to disown him.
These emotional ties, combined with the usual bureaucratic love of the status quo, are the real cause of China’s failure to overhaul its North Korea policy. Whenever a crisis erupts, China becomes agitated. But, instead of seeking a new path, it re-traces its old steps.
Indeed, China’s North Korea policy is dominated by inertia rather than sensitivity to its own national interests. This is not to say that China’s policy on North Korea will never change. But change will require that China’s leaders find a way out of their psychological ambivalence.
Fortunately, Chinese thinking on North Korea nowadays is no longer monolithic. Indeed, among China’s elite no foreign-policy issue is more divisive. Given North Korea’s ability to scare China with its geographic proximity and the prospect of a sudden collapse (with all its security implications, including an influx of refugees), these divisions are likely to grow.
As a result, China’s calculations about North Korea will remain complicated, even as the risks posed by the North’s behavior rise. China’s fears could be addressed by greater international collaboration, but China must be willing to cooperate as well, and, as we have seen again in recent days, it is unlikely to be forced out of its indecisiveness. That will only come when it opens its eyes to the real and positive possibilities of such collaboration.