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.