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North Korea: Why China won\'t act

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COMMENTS

3 December 2010 11:25

Tim Lindenmayer is a Lowy Institute intern working with Michael Fullilove on a research paper on China's approach to the UN, launched today. Tim will be a DFAT graduate trainee in 2011.

The recent Wikileaks revelation highlighting China's decreasing influence and increasing frustration with North Korea is no big surprise. The various interpretations of this leak – that China is ready to abandon North Korea or cut a deal with Seoul over reunification  – seem unconvincing. More likely is that Beijing will continue to act in the way we are all familiar with – remaining absurdly neutral and calling for restraint in the face of North Korean brinkmanship.

This is likely for a number of reasons, a couple of which are highlighted in Michael Fullilove's new paper, 'The stakeholder spectrum: China and the United Nations':  (1) There is lack of consensus on North Korean policy within the CCP, and (2) China is concerned that any attempt to reprimand or rein in its belligerent protégé may damage its bilateral relationship, or worse, provoke a regime collapse.

Several other factors also need to be taken into consideration:

  • Chinese officials feel hamstrung over North Korea. While many (especially younger) officials in Beijing probably relish the thought of dumping the Dear Leader, doing so would mean that their nuclear-armed neighbour would become hostile to China as well as to the rest of the world. North Korea may be a bad friend, but it would be a worse enemy. Furthermore, If Pyongyang happened to ignore Beijing's attempts at discipline, China would not only lose face, but would also lose its unique and influential place as the only viable mediator in the Korean crisis.
  • The Communist Party leadership in China is concerned that a condemnation of Pyongyang would create a yardstick against which its future actions may be judged. Traditionally, China professes a hard stance on issues of non-interference and state sovereignty. Beijing fears that applying too much pressure on North Korea would create expectations for other Chinese partners that are considered 'pariahs' by the international community.
  • China believes sanctions are ineffective, that Pyongyang will only be responsive to a long-term approach and that, as such, China is the only party taking responsible action. According to the Global Times  (one of several CCP mouthpieces), while Beijing has been busy maintaining regional stability and coaxing Pyongyang into negotiations, the continuing tension and failure of the Six-Party Talks can largely be blamed on inconsistent positions from the US, Japan and South Korea.

China is in an awkward position regarding North Korea. Defending it publicly and fretting over it privately, trying to simultaneously prop up the state and restrain the regime. While maintaining stability and avoiding conflict are obviously priorities, Beijing seems unable or unwilling to prioritise the interests of the international community or use its leverage over Pyongyang other than to pursue it own agenda.

The hints of policy change revealed by the Wikileaks documents are interesting, but are if anything, evidence of the lack of consensus in China on North Korea. What is worrying is that the status quo that Beijing is trying to preserve now includes nuclear tests, an unprovoked torpedo attack, construction of a light water nuclear reactor with some 2000 centrifuges and a direct artillery attack on South Korean territory. Beijing's failure to adequately discipline North Korea over any of these belligerent acts undermines its claim to the position of 'fuzeren daguo' (responsible great power) in international affairs

Photo by Flickr user gadgetdan.

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