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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.

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