It’s decision time for Beijing

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It’s decision time for Beijing

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A new government under President Park Geun-hye has been launched in South Korea. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping also will soon formally succeed to the presidency in China. Both countries place top priority on improving living standards and need external security to meet the goal. Security in the region, however, is being jeopardized by nuclear brinkmanship from North Korea that has no capacity to improve the lives of its people.

Many have become skeptical and regretted international endeavors of the past two decades that proved ineffective against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The biggest blame has been laid on China, Pyongyang’s primary ally and patron. Some say we have been deceived by China and should no longer rely on Beijing as a mediator.

But ill feelings would hardly help. We should continue efforts to stop North Korea from further progress in nuclear development, and that cannot be done without China. We have to persuade Beijing to join us, and the work should start by approaching China from a pragmatic perspective. We must, first of all, understand the “core” interests that Beijing most values.

Xi Jinping presided over a party leadership brainstorming camp last month. In the group session, Xi set the path and tone for the foreign policy of his government that goes to work in March. He vowed to pursue a path of peaceful prosperity while continuing to defend the core interests of the nation.

China’s stress on core interests came under spotlight when it was mentioned in a joint statement after U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to China in November 2009. Its emphasis is a clear message to the international community that Beijing won’t tolerate threats to the country’s core interests and will use force, if necessary, to protect those interests.

Dai Bingguo, state councilor and one of China’s highest figures in foreign policy, spelled out the core interests of China in late 2010. China’s number one interest is to maintain its fundamental state and political system and security - a reference to its socialist roots. Number two is state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Third is continuity and sustainability of economic prosperity.

Upholding the one-party system of tight state control is the country’s top core interest. Any campaign or protest against the system and in support of Western-style democracy cannot be tolerated. Nor would Beijing allow any argument or claim over territorial and sovereignty issues involving the South China Sea, the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japan) islets and the independence movement by minority ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Taiwan.

The North Korean nuclear program could jeopardize the country’s third core interest of sustained economic stability and prosperity.

China has defined the 20 years from 2002 as a “strategic period of important opportunities.” If it pours in all its state resources and power to push forward, China could even outpace the United States and become the world’s largest economy during Xi’s time in office.

It could be a monumental turning point for a China that has fallen from grace on the international stage since the Opium War in 1840. The renaissance age for China would flourish, at least in gross economic terms.

But the dream won’t come true unless China’s economy remains intact from external threats and risks. It is why Beijing tolerated Pyongyang’s waywardness to some extent.

But North Korea’s third nuclear test and deployment would undermine the security China has vehemently tried to defend. Beijing won’t be able to find a strong reason to protest if Seoul decides to join the U.S.-led multinational Missile Defense program for more solid deterrence and protection from North Korea’s nuclear threat. The North’s nuclear ambitions could even trigger a similar arms buildup in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The nightmarish scenario for now is far-fetched, but nevertheless must not be overlooked. A country under nuclear threat somehow would have to find a solid solution and protection. Defensive actions by South Korea and other neighboring countries living under nuclear threat from an unruly regime in Pyongyang would certainly escalate tensions in the region.

Would Beijing be able to concentrate on economic progress under these conditions? One of its core interests would be at stake. The country must now decide. It no longer can afford to idly overlook North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It either would have to push back the schedule for its national goals or irrefutably make Pyongyang give up its nuclear programs.

China’s dream does not stop in attaining dominance in quantitative power. China could become the central stage of world civilization. But that dream is being dragged down by North Korea’s nuclear development. For the sake of its dream and a test of its global leadership, China must step up its initiatives to resolve the nuclear problem.

*The author is a JoonAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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