Wednesday, September 3, 2014
9

How to Move China

DENVER – “Insanity,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For those who have long scoffed at the possibility that China might be willing to deal decisively with its pesky North Korean neighbor, the results of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Beijing will be all too predictable.

But, for those who watch China’s ever-changing internal political landscape carefully, there is much happening that more than justifies Kerry’s trip. Indeed, if US President Barack Obama’s administration is to be criticized for its handling of the latest North Korean “crisis,” the main problem has not been too much reliance on China, but too little.

Theories about China’s attitude toward North Korea often begin and end with the view that what the country fears, above all, is an inflow of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse – a spillover that could rend the delicate ethnic quilt of China’s northeast provinces. The problem is that, while some Chinese do worry about refugees, “China” cannot be regarded as a collective noun with a singular view about anything; like any complex modern state, China contains many different views about many different issues.

Of course, there are those in Beijing who worry day and night about North Korean refugees; but there are also many in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere who worry about the chronic crisis that North Korea’s periodic outbursts cause in an otherwise stable region of the world. As President Xi Jinping eloquently put it at the annual Boao business forum on Hainan Island earlier this month: “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.”

Xi is no dictator who can impose his will on China. Indeed, for all the characterization of China as a despotic state that one hears from the political right in the United States, its president enjoys fewer powers than his American counterpart. Gaining consensus in China is a glacial process that will not be accomplished in a single speech.

Xi’s comments obviously extend beyond a concern about refugees. North Korea is, strangely, a domestic issue for China. For starters, it is a historic ally for which many Chinese fought and died, their memory enshrined not only on monuments throughout China (though precious few in North Korea), but also in families.

Second, despite a supposed lack of ideology in contemporary China, there is, in fact, a raging debate – often taking place below the radar – about the future of China’s political system and its relationship to the economy. And, while North Korea’s communist system and that of China have become profoundly dissimilar, some Chinese worry that a collapse of North Korea’s order could shift the battle lines of that debate.

Finally, there are those who would view a North Korean collapse as a boon to US strategic interests and a setback for Chinese interests. Such hardline, zero-sum thinking is not the exclusive preserve of American think tanks.

Some Chinese ask what the rules of the game would be in the event that the Korean peninsula is united under South Korea. Could they expect to see US troops and bases along the Chinese border on the Yalu River, or perhaps a string of listening posts to gather intelligence? Though such deployments would be inconceivable to most thinking Americans (indeed, the real task would be to maintain budget support in Congress and elsewhere for any deployments in a united Korea), Chinese security experts worry about it.

Though the US and China do not lack issues to discuss, the bilateral dialogue in the security field lacks depth and follow-up. The Chinese have never been eager to discuss with their US counterparts what the two countries should do in the event of a North Korean implosion. But, if such talks were held more frequently, and the issue were addressed seriously (and repeatedly), surely progress could be made in overcoming suspicion on this question.

Indeed, Kerry’s main task is to begin an effort to reduce the strategic distrust between the two countries, which is a significant factor underlying China’s reluctance to do more on North Korea. This will require that both sides focus on the issue at hand – a challenge especially for the Americans, whose official discussions with the Chinese inevitably become an effort to plow through a laundry list of issues often advanced by single-issue constituencies. Focus and establishment of priorities should be the watchwords for the US side.

Kerry’s first trip to China was a start in this direction, but it must be followed by a regular pattern of telephone calls and additional visits, with a view to ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, a leader apparently undistinguished by any accomplishment or sign of wisdom, could catalyze a new start in US-Chinese relations.

Read more from our "Little Big Man" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedDennis Argall

    QUOTE: “Insanity,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." UNQUOTE

    I really don't know to whom that opening remark is addressed.

    It seems useful at any time, when using the word mad, to have a mirror handy and to ponder to what extent beginning thus inhibits sensible understanding of any situation. Consider in domestic relations the consequence of dismissing contrary perspective by saying: "He/She's just mad."

    It seems valuable, when speaking of doing the same thing over and over again, to weigh up one's own actions and utterances accordingly.

  2. Commentedstanton braverman

    One aspect about the relationship between North Korea and China I do not understand is it that the nuclear threat that North Korea imposes on the region also extends to China. Many Chinese cities are in striking range to the North Korean missiles. While the North Korea clearly states that the purpose of the missiles is the threat from South Korean and the US, there is an implied threat to China as well. It would be interesting to know to what extent China is concerned about this threat. Since China and Korea historically have been enemies I would assume the Chinese would see this as a serious issue.

  3. Commentedcaptainjohann Samuhanand

    Most of the people do not think about security concerns of North Korea which is surrounded by Nuclear armed US forces, Nuclear armed Chinese forces which has a common border. Unless this issue is addressed in coherrent way, North will behave like it does today.

  4. CommentedKHALID RAHIM

    Four nations should work together towards unification of two Korea under the South Korean constitution. Demagnetizing the mindset of the North will be a hard task but achievable.
    The most cumbersome task would be to make US withdraw her troops and except the Neutrality of the new Republic. It would be up to newly elected Government if they wish to continue or discard the nuclear program.

  5. CommentedBrent Beach

    If China drops support of North Korea, NK fails. Then what?

    Of the consequences listed, the first - that there is a refugee rush into China - seems least likely to cause concern. This would only happen if NK failed and become a protectorate of China. This can be managed. NK is 1.8% of China's population - 10% moving into China a year cannot be an issue, especially given the low living standards those people are accustomed to.

    The third concern - China worried about US based on China's border - do you really think they care? With all the existing bases, would moving a couple of based a few hundred kilometres closer really make a difference?

    Failure then unification with SK is the problem. NK has 24M people to SKs 50M people - a significant problem for SK, but one which it would accept. The unified country would have a struggle to rebuild it self, but would undertake that effort. The likely success of that effort would raise questions in China about the Chinese model of governance - should state control be eased? Not an outcome the China's current leadership might want to consider.

    Supporting NK costs China almost nothing and prevents a unified Korea whose success would increase doubts about the China model of state control. I think that support will continue.

  6. CommentedBurak M

    Splendid article.

    Much in line with an equally high quality analysis that was on the Financial Times earlier this week. It touched on why it is very rational for China to bee supporting North Korea and that it shouldnt be that much of a mystery as proposed by a lot of mainstream media.

    The unspoken conclusion in that article, as seems to be touched on this article as well is the simple fact that a united Korea will be more influenced by the Souths way of life and accordingly its foreign policy. This inevitable truth which in essence presents US military presence on Chinas door step, will not be welcomed in any shape or form by China, even if it means a very volatile nuclear armed next door neighbour. This notion no doubt, has been further reinforced by Chinas military elite whom are ever more cautious about the growth of US presence in the Pacific. China makes this no secret either, as with the release of its recent public white paper.

  7. CommentedS. Bait

    Does South Korea really like the scenario of a united peninsula ? How about let China run the post-collapse DPRK with a puppet government ? That would make China more receptive to the idea of collapse of DPRK, ROK won't have to feed the millions, and hopefully reduce the threat of DPRK to US, ROK, US, Japan and China.

  8. CommentedS. Bait

    "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” can be about US, Japan, ROK, ROC, Burma, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia, etc. too, not necessary about North Korea.

  9. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Secretary Hill presents a view close to the the most sophisticated to emerge from the US perspective. He acknowledges the complexity of the Korean conundrum, China's particular problems with North Korea, especially the consequences of its possible implosion, and the strategic distrust between China and the USA which renders substantive collaboration difficult, if not impossible.

    Secretary Hill hints at, but does not address, a fundamental flaw in the standard formulation - that China is the DPRK's sole major ally with any meaningful influence over Pyongyang, and is not pulling its weight in resolving the "North Korean problem." This is that North Korea poses a serious challenge to the US-led security order in Northeast Asia, framed at its core by the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances, and forward-deployed US forces stationed in and around those allies.

    This is not an order in fashioning which China has had any direct role. Since this order has now been transformed from its originally anti-Soviet focus into a mainly anti-PRC/DPRK targeted arrangement, seen from the Chinese perspective, this is at least a constraining milieu and at worst a potentially threatening structure.

    While Beijing has sought to reassure Washington that it does not seek to destroy the status quo, but modify it so as to protect China's "core interests," these reassurances have not succeeded in convincing most of its many interlocutors. Still, the DPRK's challenges to the US-led order do not directly threaten Chinese interests, although the resultant turbulence could challenge China's strategic goals, too.

    In terms of first-order problems, the DPRK appears to be far more threatening to the US-Japan-ROK alliance than it does to China. Beijing's interest lies in ensuring a stable environment in which it can grow and evolve into a more satisfied and sustainable system. To that extent, Beijing is likely to endorse US diplomacy designed to calm things down. However, the de-fanging of the DPRK, while a clear goal of the USA and its allies, is not one close to the heart of many in Beijing. After all, Washington has not made clear what's in it for Beijing, apart from talks of China being a "responsible stakeholder" in the US-led system.

    What clearly lies in the US interest may not lie in Chinese interest - especially when the two national security establishments perceive each other as the principal source of threats to themselves, and the two military forces prepare - quite openly - to engage in battle against each other. In fact, that particular risk is seen as much more acute and urgent in Beijing than is the bellicosity emanating from Pyongyang which, it is argued, is often a reaction to threatening wargames mounted by the USA and the ROK close to DPRK territory.

    In that complex and competitive milieu, "moving China" would be difficult, as Secretary Hill notes, if not impossible, unless a convergence in Sino-US strategic interest can be fashioned collaboratively. This is not an impossible challenge; Nixon and Mao, ably assisted by Kissinger and Zhou, set a powerful precedent in 1970-72. The unifying Soviet threat is missing, but comparable planetary challenges abound.

    Until the system-manager is able to accept its potential "peer-rival" as an equal partner - and not a subordinate or even a client dressed up as a "strategic partner," the record offers little hope that the Xi Jinping leadership will be any more amenable to doing Washington's bidding than its predecessor was.

    The question, it seems to me, therefore, to be not whether China can be moved, but if America can.

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