Is China changing its strategy towards North Korea?

Something paradoxical has happened in Chinese thinking about North Korea. US President Donald Trump’s impulsive decision to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to a summit has stunned China, as it has many other countries. But other than South Korea, China should be the country most elated about such a summit.

China has been urging diplomacy as the only viable solution to the nuclear and missile crisis for well over a decade. But the Chinese government’s reaction to the summit has been subdued and elite sentiments are caught between relief and anxiety.

Given its past insistence on diplomacy, Beijing could have naturally and skilfully touted the summit as a vindication of Chinese policy. Indeed, some officials and analysts hold this line. The Global Times contends that China finally exercised its influence because trends on the Korean Peninsula are developing according to the direction that China has been pushing all along. If the Trump–Kim summit can help achieve China’s most important goals of denuclearisation and peninsular stability, then there is no reason for China to be unhappy.

An important segment of the Chinese elite instead believes that the summit has marginalised China’s role in the ongoing crisis. Some even worry that Kim may deal Beijing another blow by selling out to the United States. Pyongyang could pursue strategic rapprochement in a manner reminiscent of the US–China rapprochement in the 1970s — only this time it would be a US–North Korea rapprochement against China.

Suddenly, Beijing’s fear has swung from war on the peninsula to US–North Korea collusion against China.

This fear is hysterical and unnecessary. Whatever Kim does is for the survival of his regime. Making China an enemy would not serve this purpose. At most, North Korea would become another ‘hedger’ like some Southeast Asia countries that delicately position themselves between China and the United States.

The swing of Chinese anxiety reveals the unsteadiness of China’s strategic thinking about North Korea. The current fear of marginalisation is based on a false premise. China has never played a central role during the crisis since it broke out in 1992. Beijing hosted the Six Party Talks between 2003 and 2008 and received universal acclaim — but only did so at the urging of then US Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003.

Since Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011, China’s diplomatic influence over North Korea is practically non-existent. Between 2012 and 2017, Kim failed to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping or his diplomats. Xi nevertheless sent Song Tao — the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department and a Xi protege — as a special envoy bearing his personal letter in November 2017. Kim simply refused to meet with Song.

The list of North Korean snubs of China is very long indeed. The Global Times is correct that the China–North Korea relationship has long been a ‘normal’ one with only a limited ideological bond. But this admission raises the question of why the two countries are still keeping the 1961 mutual defence pact. The relationship, like Chinese anxiety, is caught between fiction and reality.

Recognising China’s limited influence and restricted role in North Korea may help to ease Beijing’s anxiety. It does not solve the policy problem of how much influence China needs to have and what kind of role it must carve out for itself. These questions raise the fundamental issue of China’s North Korea policy: what, exactly, is China’s national interest in Korea and how should it go about achieving it?

There is a widespread sense in China’s strategic community that the North Korean crisis has reached a fork in the road. An equally strong premonition is that China cannot afford to lose any more opportunities to shape the situation in its favour.

Chinese elites argue that China needs to regain the initiative, enhance its influence and play a larger role. Some officials and analysts find comfort in the thought that China will always have a role simply by virtue of its power, geography and history. China should grasp opportunities as the situation develops. This is a sensible but not satisfying approach. It places hope in the future and solves no immediate problems.

Others argue that China must be more proactive. They say that China should intervene in the multilateral diplomacy leading up to the Trump–Kim summit. Viewing the crisis as a matter between the United States and North Korea, with China as a bystander, would simply shut Beijing out of the process and diminish its influence.

Chinese strategists have called for Beijing to act with greater assertiveness in North Korea for at least a decade, with rather limited policy influence. With Xi now starting his second term as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, their voices may be heard and a new, robust strategy of enhancing Chinese influence and protecting Chinese interests in North Korea will be in the offing. Intriguingly, Kim paid a surprise visit to Beijing last week. This is perhaps the first sign that a new strategy, or at least a new approach, is coming — compelled above all by the presumptive Trump–Kim summit.

© This article first appeared at East Asian Forum, 4 April 2018.


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About

Dr Feng Zhang (PhD, LSE) is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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