Ever since the Agreed Framework signed in 1994 between the administration of former US president Bill Clinton and North Korea crumbled in 2002, Beijing — Pyongyang’s principal backer — has successfully positioned itself as an indispensable ally in global efforts to denuclearize its neighbor.
Throughout the years, China has come to be seen as a convener of the Six Party talks and, given its relations with Pyongyang, as a lever to keep Kim Jong-il’s regime from sparking war in the Korean Peninsula.
China’s involvement in the Six Party talks has conveniently dovetailed with its attempts to reassure its neighbors — and the West — that it is rising peacefully, and that as an emerging power it is ready to act as a responsible stakeholder. At the same time, Beijing has also managed to serve as a buffer and to mitigate international responses to Pyongyang’s long streak of seemingly irrational brinkmanship.
For both sides in the conflict, therefore, China has increasingly become an indispensable moderator, a counterbalance reining in North Korea when it threatens to act out of bounds, and pacifying jittery South Korea, Japan and the US when Pyongyang conducts nuclear tests or launches ballistic missiles.
Despite its hardening stance on North Korea in recent weeks, and the backing of a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that strengthens sanctions against Pyongyang, the fact remains that China is an ally of North Korea, and the unknowns surrounding the depth of its ties with Pyongyang may have acted as a deterrent against South Korea, Japan and the US, who would perhaps have resorted to force by now to resolve the nuclear impasse.
How would China react if North Korea were attacked preemptively? Memories of China’s entry into the Korean War of 1950-1953, added to the high secrecy surrounding Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang, have made a military solution far more problematic.
Beijing is unlikely to have assumed its role as moderator out of altruism, and its position has been beneficial to its image. In the process it has managed to extract concessions in a way that is reminiscent of the gains it made when the administration of former US president Richard Nixon sought its help in the Cold War (to isolate the Soviet Union) and the Vietnam War (to stop supporting North Vietnamese), a precedent that should not escape our attention.
Washington, meanwhile, has helped to reinforce Beijing’s image of itself as an indispensable ally and become unhealthily dependent on Chinese participation in the disarmament talks, often at the expense of regional allies.
Nothing underscored this reality more than comments by Stephen Bosworth, the US’ special envoy to North Korea, who has made no secret of his position that China’s leverage on Pyongyang trumps such “annoyances” as Taiwanese independence and the fate of two US journalists jailed by the North.
Sadly, through Bosworth may have been more blunt than other officials, he isn’t the only one at the US State Department and elsewhere to believe that the West can afford to pay a price to ensure China’s continued role in the North Korea talks.
Long used to a style of diplomacy in which political gifts come at a price, Beijing is fully aware of the West’s growing dependence on it regarding North Korea and has used its position to soften Washington’s support for Taiwan.
This could explain the George W. Bush administration’s volte-face after 2001, drifting from strong support for Taiwan to nearly constant condemnation of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration. (The timing of Bush’s change of heart on Taiwan and escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula could not be more apt.)
With North Korea’s isolation intensifying in recent years, China’s trade and investment with it increased by more than 40 percent year-on-year to US$2.8 billion last year, and throughout the nuclear impasse Beijing has continued high-level contacts with its counterparts in Pyongyang while managing most of Pyongyang’s financial transactions (though some banks have now stopped doing so).
Many experts have drawn the conclusion that despite close diplomatic relations and economic ties, Beijing has been unable to influence the North’s decisions on its nuclear program.
A less explored possibility is that Beijing is exploiting its ambiguous relationship with Pyongyang to create some sort of status quo in which the North Korea nuclear issue is never fully resolved, because an end to the conflict would severely diminish Beijing’s ability to bargain with the international community.
Consequently, while it has proven amenable to Western policies and UN action on North Korea, Beijing has just as often worked to water down UNSC resolutions or pushed for further Six Party talks, a policy that, while ostensibly rational, has ensured that the North continues to threaten its neighbors, reactivate its nuclear weapons program and test fire missiles in defiance of international law.
That ambiguity, along with doubts that Beijing is fully committed to forcing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, was reinforced earlier this month when reports emerged that Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-un, had visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and other senior Chinese officials.
Given the secrecy, it is impossible to know what agreements and commitments were made during those meetings.
It is evident, therefore, that the perpetuation of the status quo is in Beijing’s advantage, as it helps bolster its image of a positive force in the region while it gains concessions from the US and others on core issues such as human rights and, above all, Taiwan.
This is not to say that China relishes a nuclear North Korea that could spark a destabilizing war in the Korean Peninsula.
But if it manages its neighbor well — not allowing it to spark a war while preventing the international community from disarming it, effectively playing one camp against the other — Pyongyang can be used by Beijing as a precious instrument to buttress the foundations of its rise while achieving its political objectives.
Ironically, over-reliance on China by Japan, South Korea and the US on the North Korean nuclear issue could make it less likely that the problem will be resolved, and more probable that they will end up giving too much to ensure that China continues its “indispensable” role.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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