[Viewpoint] Cheonan reveals China’s true colors

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[Viewpoint] Cheonan reveals China’s true colors

North Korea’s invasion of the South in June 1950 pulled the United States and South Korea into direct military conflict with China. Fifty years later, North Korea’s nuclear program prompted unprecedented American and South Korean diplomatic cooperation with China in the six-party talks. Now North Korean actions are driving American and South Korean relations with China back down again. This could just be a bump in the road, but some analysts in both China and the West worry that it might be the beginning of a new Cold War in Northeast Asia. My sense is that what is happening is more than a bump in a road, but still much less than a new Cold War. In fact, it may be a necessary adjustment to the underlying strategic realities that continue to shape relations on the Korean Peninsula. And realism is often a better basis than hope for re-establishing mutual confidence and understanding.

North Korea’s second nuclear test in 2009 marked the beginning of the current downturn in relations with Beijing. The United States, South Korea and China worked well together to impose UN Security Council sanctions in June 2009 after the second North Korean nuclear test, but then Beijing’s position began to diverge markedly. Where Washington and Seoul were skeptical about North Korean intentions at the six-party talks and increasingly focused on preparing for the post-Kim Jong-il era, Beijing pressed for an early resumption of diplomacy and rebuffed Seoul’s and Washington’s efforts to discuss cooperation in the event of instability in the North. As a result, suspicion mounted in the U.S. and South Korean governments that China had resigned itself to a nuclear North Korea and would take any steps necessary to protect the regime, while Chinese officials began worrying that the United States and South Korea were moving towards a deliberate regime change strategy in place of diplomacy.

The second downward tick in U.S. and South Korean relations with China occurred over the Cheonan sinking. After the March 26 attack, Beijing tried to defuse the situation by conveying to the U.S. and South Korean governments Pyongyang’s assurances that the North was not responsible. When the international investigation provided compelling evidence that the North had torpedoed the corvette, Beijing argued that the evidence was insufficient, pressed again for South Korea and the United States to return to the six-party talks, and watered down the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the North. Where Seoul and Washington thought it critical to re-establish deterrence and dissuade Pyongyang from thinking its nuclear tests gave it carte blanche to engage in future military provocations, Beijing worried only about propping up a fizzling diplomatic process in the hope that it would convince the North to behave better.

The Cheonan sinking has exposed the underlying realities of Chinese, American and South Korean intentions towards North Korea. We now have a reminder that China’s long-term strategic objective on the Korean Peninsula is not unification. While the six parties were focused on the tactics of denuclearization, the divergence in longer-term objectives on the peninsula was obscured. The combination of North Korean intransigence on the nuclear issue and regime instability at home has now unmasked the differences in Chinese long-term objectives compared with the United States and South Korea (and probably Japan as well). In fact, Beijing probably felt increasingly confident over the last decade that it would hold a deciding vote over the future disposition of North Korea; first because of closer Chinese economic ties with Seoul and strains in the U.S.-ROK alliance under Roh Moo-hyun, and second because of China’s dominant position in the North Korean economy, where it now provides something like 80 percent of North Korean food and fuel imports compared with about 50 percent a decade ago.

But if the Cheonan sinking has revealed to Seoul and Washington some of the realities about Chinese strategic thinking towards the Korean Peninsula, it has also demonstrated to Beijing the deep strength behind the U.S.-ROK alliance. There is evidence that some Chinese leaders like Premier Wen Jiabao have come to realize this situation and have warned that tacit support for Pyongyang will backfire against China’s longer-term interests in Asia.

However, other Chinese leaders, like Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Dai Bingguo have taken a softer line towards Pyongyang and a hard line towards the U.S. and South Korean response to the Cheonan. In part, this harder line may reflect domestic pressures stemming from China’s leadership transition in 2012 and the intensely nationalistic competition for seats on the ruling Politburo. It is significant that the Cheonan sinking appears to have precipitated an intense debate in Beijing about whether China’s long-term interests really depend on the existence of a North Korean state.

For these reasons, the current drop in U.S. and South Korean relations with China can best be characterized as an adjustment to the realities of China’s stance towards the Korean Peninsula.

There may also be a new realism in Beijing’s understanding of the limits of Chinese strategic influence and the negative consequences of North Korean provocations for longer-term Chinese interests in Asia as a whole. That is why the firm U.S. and South Korean response to the Cheonan was so necessary - to shape calculations not only in Pyongyang, but also in Beijing. That is the only way to ensure that relations with Beijing move to a firmer strategic footing for the future.

*The writer is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael J. Green
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