China's North Korea stance: laggard or leader?

Beijing's caution risks undermining its growing reputation as a global player. But seeming weakness is a price it appears willing to pay now, in the interests of a long-term leadership goal: to take over America's old mantle as the dominant power in Asia.

/Andrew Harnik/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, center right, participates in a welcome ceremony with Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Gen. Fang Fenghui, left, at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China, on Aug. 15, 2017. Dunford was visiting South Korea, Japan, and China after a week in which Trump declared the U.S. military "locked and loaded" and said he was ready to unleash "fire and fury" if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.

Is China’s courage failing?

Exasperated and embarrassed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, Beijing is nonetheless shrinking from using all the influence it has to stop them. China reportedly refused to back US proposals for an oil embargo against Pyongyang, for example, forcing Washington to soften the UN Security Council resolution debated on Monday.

US President Trump has publicly chastened Beijing on Twitter for its hesitancy, and China’s caution risks undermining its growing reputation as a decisive player on the world stage. But that apparent weakness is a price that its rulers seem willing to pay now, in return for longer-term leadership dividends. 

Stronger sanctions could throttle Kim Jong-un’s regime. And though the young dictator is a humiliating thorn in China’s side, Beijing still sees North Korea as more of an asset than a liability for its overriding purpose: to take America’s old mantle as the unchallenged power in Asia.

“If you are a major global power you are expected to step up at a time of crisis,” says David Shambaugh, an expert in Chinese politics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “China is not doing that.”

Instead, China is setting its own rules, and charting its own path to a bigger global role. Chinese President Xi Jinping is not vacillating, Prof. Shambaugh adds. He is simply pursuing interests very different from, even diametrically opposed to, the goals that the United States and its allies have set. “It’s a rational position,” he says.

Revamped leadership

Where once Beijing worked with Washington to find a common stance on North Korea, “their approach to the problem now is quite different from the US, South Korea’s, or Japan’s,” says Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant secretary of State for Asia. “We’ve gone back to the cold war era” when Russia and China routinely opposed Washington’s international policies.

Gone are the days when China followed the dictum promulgated by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, “hide your strength, bide your time.” Mr. Xi “has moved China into a very different strategic posture” over the past five years, says Zhang Baohui, who teaches international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He now talks openly of “guiding” the international community.

If Beijing is taking the lead on global issues such as the defense of free trade and the Paris accord to limit climate change, it is partly because the United States is abdicating the responsibilities it once took in these fields. But China also sees clear self-interest in such policies.

Self-interest also drives Xi’s trademark “Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious trade and development strategy designed to link China with Central Asia and Europe as it takes a larger role in world affairs. With growth slowing at home, China is looking to open new markets for Chinese goods and find new projects for its heavy industries.

And Beijing’s assertiveness in laying claim to, building up, and then militarizing a string of reefs and shoals in the South China Sea has illustrated its view of the region as rightfully a Chinese domain.

These territorial forays have earned China the reputation of being a bully among its neighbors – a striking contrast to the kid-glove approach that the regional behemoth has taken to tiny, impoverished North Korea.

Beijing's limits

Some observers see unexpected weakness in this behavior. “China has all the points of leverage over North Korea but seems terrified of doing anything,” says Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at King’s College in London.

If Beijing were able to use its influence to defuse the crisis, such a coup would burnish its international reputation as a constructive player on the global stage. “That would be a very significant sign of China demonstrating much more clout [and] effective diplomacy,” points out Amy King, who teaches defense studies at Australian National University in Canberra.

But the way it is currently dealing with the crisis, Dr. King adds, “shows the limits of China’s power and sway.”

China appears to have accepted North Korea’s de facto status as a nuclear power. Condemning recent belligerent US comments, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Liu Jieyi said last week that Beijing would “never allow chaos and war on the peninsula.” That formulation, later repeated by Foreign Ministry spokesmen in Beijing, made no reference to China’s traditional insistence on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

North Korea as a nuclear power would appear to pose obstacles to China’s regional leadership ambitions.

“Since the end of the cold war, China’s main goal in Asia has been to deter the influence of the United States in the region,” points out Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University in China.

“We are not ready to abandon the DPRK politically and economically,” he adds, using the abbreviation for the country’s official name, “but the situation is getting less controllable. The DPRK is increasingly explosive.”

Long-term goals

The drawbacks for China are clear: The Korea crisis sucks the United States back into China’s backyard; it strengthens Washington’s alliances with Japan and South Korea (setting up THAAD anti-missile defenses around Seoul that China fears can see into its own territory, for example); and it encourages its rival Japan to strengthen its own military defenses.

But in the long run, argues Dr. Shirk, who now runs the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego, a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of destroying US cities would be well-placed to undermine America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, the two key pillars of Washington’s military presence in Asia.

“We would have a harder time making our commitment to our allies credible,” she suggests. “They would be uncertain that we would take the risk of defending them against North Korea if that meant putting our homeland at risk.”

If China has “the sense that the US presence in Asia is a bigger problem than the North Korean threat,” Shirk worries, “it could be that China wants to maintain that threat so as to de-couple the US from its allies.

“Their government is motivated not just by a fear of the collapse of North Korea, but by the larger geostrategic benefit that China sees,” she argues.

“The United States is the only country that can get in the way of China’s goals in the region,” adds Valerie Niquet, a China expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris. “In that context, where the main concern is its rivalry with the US, China still believes that North Korea is a strategic asset.”

And there are domestic considerations too, Shambaugh points out. North Korea regards its nuclear program as an existential guarantee of survival. The pressure required to persuade the government to give up its nuclear ambitions would also likely bring it down.

Deliberately destroying a fraternal socialist government, at the behest of the United States, would raise questions about the legitimacy of Communist Party rule in China.

China is not acting as forcefully as it might “for very rational reasons,” Shambaugh says. “It’s the perceived potential instability the Communist Party feels about its own system. It does not want regime collapse in Pyongyang.”

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