China Policy Institute: Analysis


North Korea

What now for the Rebalance?

Written by Ali Wyne.

As U.S. President Barack Obama approaches the end of his time in office, a convergence of developments is challenging his principal foreign-policy initiative, the effort to rebalance America’s strategic equities towards the Asia-Pacific. Continue reading “What now for the Rebalance?”

To curb North Korea’s nuclear program, follow the money

Written by John S Park.

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test on September 9 sparked a new round of questions about how to contain this rapidly growing threat. Like clockwork, the United States and its northeast Asian allies are already preparing another dose of sanctions.

Most U.S. defense experts believe that a military response against North Korea would quickly escalate to open conflict with massive casualties. Instead, the world community has responded to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in recent years by constantly tightening economic and political sanctions on Pyongyang. Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, the United Nations Security Council has adopted five resolutions designed to deny North Korea access to components for its nuclear and missile programs. Continue reading “To curb North Korea’s nuclear program, follow the money”

Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection

Written by Adam Cathcart.

No matter where they are working around the world, most journalists (like aspiring novelists) love a good cloak-and-dagger story. And when it comes to occurrences more ripe for investigation, speculation and opining, there are few events more defining than the defection of a high-level diplomat from one state to its existential rival. The questions that arise from such events themselves create a kind of frisson of possibility. With apologies for the normative use of the male pronoun, we can ask: For how long had he planned his leap from one set of loyalties to another? How had he prevented discovery of his plan, and how did he escape? Was he in mortal danger? What did he know, and how much did he tell the intelligence services in the new state into whose hands he had entrusted himself? Why did he defect? And what – and who – did he leave behind?

Continue reading “Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection”

Why China takes a softly-softly line on North Korea

Written by Astrid Nordin.

In the run up to its first party congress since 1980, the North Korean government increased its drive to develop nuclear weapons, raising tensions in the region. This has alarmed and angered neighbouring countries, and particularly China, whose president Xi Jinping made clear at a recent conference that China will not tolerate chaos on the Korean peninsula.

At the same time, many outsiders suggest that Beijing’s close relationship with Pyongyang means that China has a crucial role in reining in North Korea – and that it could do so if it really wanted to. Continue reading “Why China takes a softly-softly line on North Korea”

China’s receding regional ambitions?

Written by Mark Beeson.

Few would disagree with the idea that China is a rising power with great international ambitions. For many policymakers, commentators and citizens in China, restoring its greatness and accustomed centrality in East Asian affairs is a crucial and entirely legitimate goal.

In this context, China’s immediate neighbourhood provides an important testing ground for its more general international ambitions.

And yet events of the last couple of years – even the last couple of weeks – have cast doubt on these ambitions, at least in the short term. Perhaps China’s current geopolitical and geoeconomic problems will ultimately prove an insignificant footnote on the path to global primacy. Or perhaps not. If we ask what it takes to be powerful and exert international influence then China may be exhibiting some surprising vulnerabilities.

The world’s current hegemon – the United States – became so because it was far more powerful both economically and militarily than any other country on the planet in the aftermath of the second world war. But it is also important to remember that many other states and peoples actually liked the US and the sorts of values it projected through the conscious efforts of its policymakers and the inadvertent contribution of its creative industries and lifestyles.

Whatever we may think about the theoretical and practical utility of so-called “soft power”, most observers – in China, too – would agree that China doesn’t have a great deal of it. Significantly, growing numbers of China’s most gifted and employable citizens have chosen to be educated overseas and work in places like the US when they can.

Equally importantly, China’s diplomatic “charm offensive” in Southeast Asia, after some remarkable initial successes, has effectively ground to a halt. Frightening the life out of the neighbours is not the nest way to win friends and influence people.

It is not just the implausible nature of some of China’s territorial claims that is causing such regional angst, however, but the way that they are being underpinned by increasingly aggressive actions on the ground.

The pursuit of China’s territorial claims is a non-negotiable, popularly supported policy at all levels of society – despite the obvious and enduring negative impact on the country’s overall image. This would be important at any time, but it is especially consequential when China’s principal instrument of regional influence – the strength of its economy – is also looking decidedly less effective.

There is an important but unresolved debate about whether the recent devaluation of the yuan is a masterstroke of far-sighted economic diplomacy, or a rather panic stricken effort to boost a flagging economy with some increasingly visible structural weaknesses. My guess is it’s probably a bit of both, with the timing of one helping to make the case for the necessity of the other.

Whatever the truth of it, however, there is less doubt about its impact on the region.

China is the most important bilateral trade partner for nearly every economy in East Asia. The depreciation of the yuan means countries that compete in the same export markets as China does will find it tougher. Commodity exporters, like Indonesia, will find the price of their resources being driven down – as we know only too well in Australia. The associated fall in the value of regional currencies will make servicing dollar denominated loans all the more difficult, too.

There are, in short, some unnerving similarities with the Asian crisis of the late 1990s – with one crucial difference, however. During the Asian crisis China won universal praise for not devaluing its currency and adding to the mayhem. This time around, China’s immediate national priorities and the government’s paranoia about rising unemployment and possible social unrest are plainly in the ascendancy and shaping policy.

China’s leaders are generally obsessed with “American hegemonism” and what they see as the US’s unfairly dominant position in world affairs. They might, however, have paid closer heed to some of the lessons that flow from the American experience.

First, being the dominant economic actor clearly has its advantages, but it is no guarantee of universal popularity. Perhaps the geopoliticians that inhabit the politburo and China’s growing number of think-tanks judge that it is better to be feared than loved. But the US demonstrates the limits of this idea, too.

For all its overwhelming military power, the US has not been able to definitively defeat or deter the likes of the Taliban, North Korea, Islamic State or any of the other members of the contemporary international rogues’ gallery. Military might is not what it used to be.

For a country that measures its history in millennia, such considerations may be petty and insignificant. The outcome of the long game may be what ultimately matters to a policymaking elite that is not as constrained by the truncated electoral cycles of their democratic counterparts.

But even the most far-sighted leaders have to pay attention to quotidian reality. To judge from China’s growing list of domestic and regional problems, it is not clear that China’s current elites are quite so good at the short game.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at University of Western Australia. This article first appeared on The Conversation and is located here. Image credit: CC by IQRemix/Flickr.


For a more extensive version of this argument, see Beeson, M. and Li, F. (2014) China’s Regional Relations: Evolving Foreign Policy Dynamics, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner).

The Yin and the Yang: China’s Delicate Balancing of North-South Korea Relations

Written by Brian Benedictus.

When it comes to the level of trust and friendship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or DPRK), it is clear that the relationship has hit rocky times in recent years. By contrast, China-Republic of Korea (South Korea or ROK) ties have warmed gradually over the past decade, placing China in the increasingly difficult position of balancing its relationship with its long-time Korean partner to the north and its growing friendship with the Korea in the south.

In recent years, actions undertaken by leadership in Pyongyang has pushed China’s patience to the brink. In early 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapon’s test against strong push pack from China, which saw the test as threatening the region’s stability. It also showed Beijing’s inability to prevent its strategic partner from undertaking such a provocative action. Last December, ties became further strained when China’s closest link in North Korea, former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang Song Thaek, was accused of corruption and executed soon thereafter. The relationship once described by Mao Zedong as close “as lips and teeth” is clearly at one of its lowest points in history. Dr. Andrei Lankov, a Professor and historian at Kookmin University in Seoul, stated recently that “currently we see a gradual deterioration of Sino-DPRK relations, largely initiated by the North Korean side.” He also stated that “for China, North Korea is a trouble-maker whose adventurism occasionally puts China’s long-term interests at risk and whose disregard for the Chinese warnings is remarkable.” It is worth noting that there were over 40 senior level exchanges  between the two countries from 2009 to 2012, but the number during 2013 and 2014 dropped to just two.

China’s bilateral ties with South Korea have seen marked improvement in recent years. Xi Jinping’s summer meeting in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye marked the first time a Chinese leader visited South Korea prior to first visiting North Korea. The focal point of the relationship is the intensity of growing economic ties between the two countries, which has seen trade move from merely $6.37 billion in 1992 to over $200 billion in 2011. While South Korea’s trade volume with China is larger than its combined trade with Japan and the United States, a free trade agreement is expected to be ratified by the two countries later this month, which will only further cement ties between Beijing and Seoul. There are, however, some hard truths that all three countries realize when defining their respective bilateral relationships.

Simply put, Chinese trade and aid with North Korea will be maintained at least under current levels for the foreseeable future. For China, maintaining regional stability is paramount in the region. Any sudden government collapse in the DPRK could result in a heavy influx of North Korean refugees across border into China’s Jilin and Liaoning Provinces, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that Beijing would be stretched to manage. And while speculation has run rampant on the possibility of the two countries decreasing economic ties, the reality is that trade between them has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2013 trade between China and North Korea grew by more than ten percent from 2012 levels to $6.5 billion. And while Chinese grain exports to the DPRK have decreased in recent years, this is due to a relatively stable North Korean economy and higher yielding domestic harvests, not geopolitical wrangling between the two states. Some observers also pointed to the apparent absence of Chinese shipments of crude oil to North Korea for the first seven months of this year, yet there were no reports of serious fuel shortages in the country. However, Yonhap news agency in South Korea reported that “…diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter cautioned against reading too much into the official trade figures because China has been providing crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid and such shipments have not been recorded on paper.”

While the North Korean leadership has lashed out with a multitude of diatribes aimed at Beijing over the past year, the DPRK understands that China is its most reliable (and indispensable) friend. North Korea currently relies on China for nearly 90% of its energy imports and 60% of its total trade. Although it has looked recently to Russia, Japan, and even the European Union for economic alternatives, none of them would be willing to give Pyongyang an economic arrangement in the form that it currently enjoys with China. Since 1995, Beijing has allowed Pyongyang to run average annual deficits of nearly $358 million, which essentially China writes off as aid to the country. Pyongyang is also able to distribute Chinese food aid directly to its military, as such aid does not require distributional oversight as much of North Korea’s previous arrangements with international organizations have had,  thus reinforcing its Songun (military first) policy to maintain support of its vast military. North Korea’s primary export to China come from its vast and largely untapped mineral reserves. The reserves, which include anthracite and iron ore, provides North Korea’s leadership with a vital source of income, as most other countries currently do not trade on a large scale with the DPRK due to embargo restrictions.

Finally, while Beijing won’t sell off its “diplomatic stock” with the DPRK, it is increasingly diversifying its political capital into South Korea. In March, Beijing and Seoul announced  during the Xi-Park meeting that “…both sides are committed to realizing the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and hope to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula.” Beijing also seems to be taking the possibility of a ROK-led Korean unification more seriously, and doesn’t want to see the United States being the only major player whispering in Seoul’s ear if that time comes. Last year, in a major shift, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which is under the direct control of the State Council) stated in a report that Korean reunification would become the focus of cross-border relations in the future and stressed the need to quiet concerns that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances. The report also stated that during informal discussions with South Korean officials, Chinese officials apparently have shown a keen interest in the prospects of reunification.

There are obstacles, however, that will test the limits of exactly how far and fast PRC-ROK relations can develop. Beijing must understand that South Korea has to maintain a delicate balance between its economic interests with China and its vital security relationship with the United States. Many South Koreans are also suspicious of Chinese motives in  deepening ties with their country, and often such negative thoughts stem from China’s long-standing relationship with the DPRK. In a 2012 poll, over two-thirds (68.1%) of South Koreans held negative views towards the China-North Korea relationship. For its part, China must realize that if it wants to be seen as a responsible actor in the region, it cannot continue to support North Korea unconditionally. It does appear that Beijing is aware of the high reputational costs that its relationship with the DPRK poses. With each step that China takes in order to distance itself from its long-time ally, the likelihood that the regime in Pyongyang collapses increases. For China, this balance is vital to its regional interests, and its approaches to both North and South Korea will be in a constant state of transition and change for the foreseeable future.

Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image Credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.

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