How China can change its mind
China is experienced and tactful. It is good at changing its attitudes and standpoints quickly, adjusting the intensity masterfully. Its quick reaction is displayed in unexpected situations. Sudden change has been the age-old wisdom of Chinese diplomacy.
North Korea is clever and predicted China’s changes. The fourth nuclear experiment in January was a gamble, and China responded unexpectedly. China’s leadership took North Korea’s side, a response beyond Pyongyang’s expectation. It left our diplomats puzzled.
Sudden changes are unpredictable. In the past three years, Beijing has been treating Pyongyang poorly, and President Xi Jinping has frequently advocated denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. A summit between Xi and Kim Jong-un has yet to happen. So China was expected to be firm on North Korea’s nuclear test. But Beijing went against that prediction and responded lukewarmly. As China changed its stance, our footing with China became unclear.
North Korea’s provocations are progressing, and now it threatens a long-range missile launch. North Korea warned that it would take place between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25. On Feb. 3, South Korea and the United States pledged strict retaliation. Beijing will participate in the United Nations’ discussion on sanctions, but its pressure on North Korea will be limited.
Chinese diplomacy is good at double-faced rhetoric. China claims to separate the branches from the roots. It distinguishes North Korea’s nuclear program from its survival. But the nuclear issue is directly related to its system of survival. A linear judgment is a product of experience and logic. China refuses a clear answer and keeps the focus ambiguous. China’s response to the North Korean nuclear issue is intentionally vague.
Sudden changes are based on cool-headed calculations. China values North Korea’s strategic value, as the Korean Peninsula is the crossroads of continental and maritime powers. North Korea stands in the way of the U.S. military approaching the continent, playing the role of a buffer for defense. North Korea makes the most of its geopolitical position, and China pays for it by providing oil and food. They are scratching each other’s backs, and China won’t give up on North Korea.
The peninsula and the continent are fatefully connected. When Japan invaded Korea in 1592, Ming China sent troops to help. During the 1950-53 Korean War, Korea-U.S. allied forces crossed the 38th parallel and threatened the continent. Mao Zedong sent in forces. China cannot abandon North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula holds a place in Chinese history. In the late 19th century, China was defeated in the Sino-Japanese War, and regaining influence on the Korean Peninsula is a must for the Chinese leadership. In the 1940s, Korean independence movement leader Kim Gu’s goal was to elevate the status of the provisional government into an official one. But China’s Chiang Kai-shek did not recognize Kim’s government as a government-in-exile. Jo So-ang, the foreign minister of the provisional government, suspected that Chiang had a desire to keep the Korean Peninsula under China’s suzerainty after Japan’s fall.
As a boy, Mao was a voracious reader. Edgar Snow wrote in “Red Star over China” that Mao was captivated by the words, “It is sad. Will China fall?” He was sad that Japan invaded China and China was losing suzerainty over Joseon. Mao and Chiang were hostile to each other, but both shared a desire for the Korean Peninsula. Their legacy was assumed by Xi’s ambition for new great power. China deals with the nuclear issue within the strategic framework of U.S.-China relations.
The United States and China compete and are confrontational. In the South China Sea, conflict is rising and the United States is encircling China. As the U.S.-Japan alliance grows tighter, North Korea’s value is enhanced. North Korea’s nuclear armaments threaten the Korea-U.S. alliance, as Pyongyang’s ambition is to strike the continental United States with a missile. As U.S. military strength is divided, it cannot solely focus on the South China Sea. China traditionally has driven away an enemy by using another enemy. The tactic is evolving, and North Korea is a check on the United States for China.
Kim Jong-un’s regime is unpredictable, and its erratic moves are burdens for China as well. But Beijing tries to appease the North - alternating between carrots and sticks - as North Korea’s nuclear ambition is a plus for China. China’s foreign policy is realistic - unlike South Korea’s adherence to justifications. As the pragmatic yardstick is flexible, China can change in accordance with its interests. North Korea was backstabbed when Seoul and Beijing established official ties in 1992. At the time, Pyongyang defined Beijing’s sudden shift as the betrayal of a blood brother.
The Northeast Asia situation is changing fast. China needs to change its yardstick. For its part, South Korea needs to play a card to turn around the situation. It could be deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield. President Park Geun-hye said Seoul would consider Thaad based on its security and national interests. Beijing is hostile to Thaad, but the antagonism could offer a breakthrough. When the deployment of a Thaad battery is planned, China will change, and its yardstick of interests will be shaken. China would have to calculate the pros and cons of Thaad and North Korea’s nuclear program. A diplomatic deal is made at a critical moment. We can create the momentum with our will for self-reliant security.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 4, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon