Preparing for a rising China eraLast week, I visited a North Korean restaurant in Wangjing, a neighborhood in Beijing with a large number of Korean residents. Like most North Korean restaurants in China, it is popular for its song and dance performances by attractive North Korean women in traditional Korean dress. My friend ordered a North Korean brand beer recommended by the waitress. But she brought just two bottles that would hardly serve the group I was with, and told us they were out of stock when we asked for more. We were later surprised to learn the reason for the shortage: Beijing’s role in restricting the flow of North Korean goods into China.
Beijing has recently turned conspicuously tougher on Pyongyang. It announced the closing of all transactions with North Korea’s foreign trade bank to cooperate in the international sanctions aimed at curbing illegal North Korean trade. North Korean restaurants running out of beer clearly showed how much Beijing can influence Pyongyang with its change in attitude and behavior. One Chinese expert in Beijing pointed out that China now publicly opposes North Korean nuclear armament in a sharp departure from the past when it refrained from condemning Pyongyang.
But the expert declined to comment on whether there is a fundamental change in China’s policy toward North Korea. While Beijing’s attitude towards its traditional ally may be changing, it is not to the extent that Seoul and Washington can hope for a united front against Pyongyang.
Chinese President Xi Jingping champions the “Chinese dream” - a great revival of China through national strength and enlightened and happier Chinese people. On the foreign front, he preaches a new type of “great power relationship” mainly with the United States - an idea he failed to sell to Americans during a summit with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in California last month.
The vague wording - a new great power relationship - comes down to China’s demand for a more equal footing with America on the global stage through mutual respect for national interests and a win-win cooperation. Beijing wants respect for its status and influence in Asia as much as it recognizes Washington’s global leadership.
Beijing is realigning its relations with its neighbors in line with its vision of becoming a global power. Its changed attitude toward Pyongyang is part of the rearrangement. Because of their ideological ties and traditional alliance, Beijing has until now blindly sided with Pyongyang. Under the global power relationship framework, however, China must act differently to live up to its newfound status as a regional leader; it has to be more critical of irrefutable misbehavior by Pyongyang. Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, highlights three major changes in China’s foreign policy.
First, Beijing now places a higher priority on political interests over economic ones. Second, it wants to exercise more global responsibility. Third, it is becoming more aggressive on security issues.
The harsher tone toward Pyongyang should be understood in this context. In other words, China’s shift in attitude and policy on North Korea is to accommodate its new grander vision on foreign policy and national development. It would be a stretch to assume that Beijing is joining Seoul and Washington for a concerted effort to pressure and rein in Pyongyang. Instead, we need to understand China’s intentions from the perspectives of its growing regional presence and status.
This is why China needs to be thoroughly studied. But due to its massive size and long history, China is like an immense tome that cannot be read in a lifetime.
Then how can we understand China better? We need an exclusive and permanent government organization to study and analyze China, and come up with a set of strategic and comprehensive policies towards China.
First, the new research center could function as a sort of control tower on policies on China. Since one organization alone cannot deal with China, it will need to link up with various research centers and exchange groups on China. It could accumulate and combine various data and information on China through close association with these other organizations, and direct Chinese research to better meet our needs and interests.
It could also serve as a comprehensive service center on China. Excluding any confidential data, it could share its stock of resources on China to reduce national costs. This is important if one knows how difficult it is to get information on China. We need national-level efforts to reduce wasteful spending on research data on China.
Such endeavors will help us to better prepare for an era of a rising China. President Park Geun-hye’s recent visit to China was a success, but it would be naive to believe that everything will be fine just because our president received a warm welcome. We must be prepared to open a new chapter on the bilateral relations.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
BY You Sang-chul