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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.

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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.

North Korean Scholars and Koguryo: How to Reignite a Historical Controversy on Chinese National Day

Written by Adam Cathcart.

It doesn’t take much skill at reading tea-leaves in Chinese or English to recognize that Kim Jong-un’s letter of congratulations to Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Zhang Dejiang on the PRC’s National Day fell far short of what, from a Chinese perspective, it should have been. Kim’s three brief sentences were newsworthy because he was ostensibly bed-ridden, but also because they indicated a lack of respect for the Chinese Communist Party.

If the slight was intentional, it would reflect the recent context of relations between the respective Leninist Party-states, which have hardly been positive. On the heels of an open dispute over fishing rights involving North Korean hijacking and seizure of a Chinese ship (which, to my knowledge, has yet to be returned to Dalian), the DPRK news media began flaunting North Korea’s interest in maritime law. Surely such stories are intended and timed as much to aggravate Chinese colleagues as they are to brag about North Korea’s alleged adherence to international law. Thus, amid the grumbling and much hard work on the fisheries issue by the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean suggestion at the UN that the Security Council needed reforming was not intended to get back in Beijing’s good graces.

But do such memes a proper overall bilateral controversy make? Not necessarily. The PRC Embassy in Pyongyang seems to finally be getting some satisfaction on issues surrounding Chinese Korean War tombs in North Korea. The Ambassador recently attended a trade fair and has been particularly active in meeting overseas Chinese in North Korea; he is anything but bunkered in. Bilateral trade is way up (67% in the past six months) between eastern Jilin province and the DPRK’s North Hamgyong province, as reported last month in the print edition of Yanbian Chenbao (Yanbian Morning Post). And a major bilateral trade festival is slated to go down October 16-20 in Dandong. If that last event is cancelled, then perhaps we have something really big to talk about.

However, some things never change. When North Korea starts to shift its scholarly and historical narratives of northern regimes, Beijing takes note. I will never forget sitting in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive and being gobsmacked by the level of detail with which that bureaucracy was analyzing one particular article in Pyongyang’s major historical journal. The article argued that Korea was not, in fact, subservient to the Yuan dynasty in the late 1200s and that Korea’s place in the Sinocentric tributary system was hardly eternal. In its writing, the MFA officials were in effect warning Chinese leaders that this scholarship could presage a change in North Korea’s foreign policy, resulting in more intransigence toward Beijing.

No one really needs reminding today of how potent the deep historical issues can be between both Koreans and China. Park Geun-hye’s careful trips to Xi’an and around China, and her deft dance around and into various intellectual and nationalistic minefields were remarkable for their efforts to reframe Chinese-South Korean historical ties. When these efforts are paired with a real impetus from Beijing down to the academies under its dominion to engage with South Korea in the realm of ‘soft power,’ one has to think that this is all starting to work, if gingerly.

Meanwhile, North Korea has thrown a metaphorical grenade in the middle of the floor by raising the Koguryo issue in a rather prominent light. On the eve of China’s National Day (1 October), the evening news in Pyongyang ran a story about an academic conference on the Koguryo theme. The KCNA explained part of the backdrop:

History: Monument to King Kwanggaetho of Koguryo
It has been 1 600 years since the erection of Monument to Kwanggaetho (391-412), the 24th king of Koguryo, a powerful state that existed in the East for a thousand years (B.C. 227-A.D. 668). The monument was built by King Jangsu, Kwanggaetho’s son, in 414 to hand down his feats to posterity. It is located in Kuknaesong (Jilin Province of China at present), which was the capital of Koguryo. […]

— Pyongyang, October 1 (KCNA)

Perhaps not a big deal? Consider the fact that this artifact is on Chinese territory presently, surrounded in glass, and, more importantly, that its related steele has recently been uncovered and is under heavy protection from any foreign documentation in the new Koguryo History Museum in Ji’an city, on the upper Yalu River.

The last foreign reporter to make a trek to see it was ‘detained by public security personnel, before being ordered to leave Jian and followed out of town.’ When I traveled to see this steele with two Sino-NK colleagues this past April, not only was it impossible to take photos of it, one had to leave all cameras and phones in another building entirely.

The PRC is fiercely protective of the Koguryo narrative on its own soil, such that the kingdom is not even mentioned in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture Museum (another new edifice) and major research clusters in Beijing and across the Northeast exist to propound the view that Koguryo was really just a nomadic Chinese minority group. The North Korean officials who approved the existence of this news item, on a key date on the Chinese calendar, could not be oblivious to this reality.

The academic conference on the subject of Koguryo, covered here in some detail by Rodong Sinmun (in Korean), made the theme all the more tangible. Remco Breuker, the principal investigator of a major newresearch grant on the politics of Koguryo and the role of Manchuria in Korean historical controversies, is now in possession of a number of slides from the conference presentations, and may be doing some more writing subsequently about how and why the DPRK is interpreting that part of its pre-history.

Historical politics don’t fully drive relationships in Northeast Asia, but they surely have a way of reflecting and highlighting contemporary divisions. The salient example here is how the North Korean media and museum sector, obviously working in coordination, have stepped up anti-Japanese education in places like Kaesong as the abduction report has waned from ‘pending’ to ‘perhaps not forthcoming at all.’ North Korea’s unilateral highlighting of the Koguryo issue thus serves a similar purpose: It indicates to Chinese interlocutors the intractability of North Korea’s stances on multiple issues, and the readiness, to use a Chinese metaphor for where things stand, to go ‘deeper into the ditch’ of Chinese-North Korean relations if need be.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer at the University of Leeds and a CPI Regular Contributor. He tweets @adamcathcart. Image credit: CC by Caitriana Nicholson/Flickr.

Keeping China in Check: How North Korea Manages its Relationship with a Superpower

Written by Adam Cathcart.

Around the world today, knowing how and when to deflect the will of the Chinese Communist Party seems to be something of a common theme. Beijing’s confidence is manifest at every turn: When one of its top leaders arrives in London, China seems to expect nothing less than audiences with the Queen, massive and obligatory profits, and silence about Tibet. Chinese state propaganda continues to promote a version of history that emphasizes victimization by the West, but by and large the country’s government now gets what it wants.

Why, then, when China looks at its impoverished neighbour North Korea, does the PRC seem so stymied, and even impotent?

Economic leverage has been a key tool in Beijing’s kit. But, just as the existence of large economic ties does not ipso facto prevent war from breaking out between China and Japan, the notion of strong economic ties between China and North Korea does not necessarily lead to outright Chinese influence – or China’s ability to use that leverage. The DPRK is surely dependent on trade with China, Chinese oil, and consumer goods, and North Korean businesses operating legally in China are a major contributor to the Pyongyang regime’s balance sheet.

Pyongyang’s ability to survive on very little, and the implicit threat of its collapse, make it almost impossible for China to shut off this flow. A shutting-off of cross-border trade would not simply represent a backtracking after years of slow growth, it would be a total contradiction in Beijing’s broader policy to open up frontier areas for transportation and trade. Such a policy would also lead to a great deal of illegal cross-border activity which the PRC is already rather annoyed at having to police.

Cultural influence, or ‘soft power’ has been another element of Beijing’s global strategy. There are equivalents of the ‘Confucius Institutes’ in Pyongyang, with an estimated 700 graduates per year. But North Korea keeps its small population of overseas Chinese under careful surveillance (Kim Jong-un finally allowed them to have landline telephones, an improvement) and at Chinese New Year’s parties in Pyongyang, foreigners outnumber North Koreans. Chinese students at elite universities in Pyongyang will occasionally swap USB sticks with North Korean friends, but the content absorbed is just as likely to be Japanese pornography as tracts about marketization.

Kim Il-song was mortally opposed to Chinese language education in the DPRK, telling his successors not to trust Chinese capitalists. There is no need to conjure up a ‘last testament of Kim Jong-il’ to argue that anti-Chinese sentiment is hard-wired into the ruling arts of the North Korean leadership.

Using military power in North Korea is hardly a hypothetical for the PRC, which undertook three draining years of total conventional war against the US and United Nations in Korea (1950-1953) and spent another five years of occupation and reconstruction of the DPRK (1953-1958).  Mao’s gamble that intervening in the Korean War would not result in either a huge defeat or American nuclear attacks on Chinese soil paid off. But Chinese leaders today have very little stomach for another war to either destroy or save the DPRK; North Korea’s nuclear deterrent provides yet more reason to stay out.

North Korea’s unique historical position as a sovereign state that had been fully occupied by Chinese communist troops understandably makes the North Koreans touchy and prone to exaggerated claims of Kimist power and genius. It also makes the Chinese extremely halting when any suggestion is tendered that such a turn of events could again come to pass. Even the fatuous editors elevated as ‘public intellectuals’ in PRC state media have to recognize Beijing’s sense of ambivalence in this area.

If history helps to immobilize China’s freedom of action with North Korea, the communist giant’s relationships in the region also prevent it from making much progress. Outright hatred of Abe Shinzo means that there is next to no policy coordination between Japan and China on North Korea – very much to the benefit of Pyongyang.  And every forward step taken to heighten the symbolism of China’s relationship with Seoulmakes North Korea all the more recalcitrant and obdurate. When Xi Jinping went to the South Korean capital on 3 July, the DPRK media said he shared Park Geun-hye’s ‘dog’s dream of denuclearization’; less than three weeks later, the country’s top political and military organ, the National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un, called China ‘weak-willed…clinging to the malodorous coattails of the US.’

North Korea is no poster child for doing Beijing’s bidding. Assertions that North Korea is China’s“savage attack dog” make for exciting reading, but are completely off-base. It is North Korea’s refusal to heed China’s pressure and insistence that in so many ways makes the country noteworthy.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer in the Dept of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @Adamcathcart.

Abusive Convenience: Recent Chinese-North Korean Relations

Written by Adam Cathcart.

In the lengthening aftermath of the Jang Song-taek execution, writers who are fond of metaphors for Chinese-North Korean relations can take heart. The bilateral relationship which had been “like lips and teeth” continues its transition into a new era, one of bleeding lips, or, as the historian Shen Zhihua puts it, a “marriage of convenience” experiencing serious discord.

In order to properly review recent changes and action in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, we need to do more than read the latest rumor; we need to investigate the broader arc of Sino-North Korean relations in the months after the Jang Song-taek purge. From the Chinese perspective, things with Pyongyang are going poorly, and Beijing’s strategic discourse on North Korea continues its pattern of gradual change. Apart from a few recent bright spots involving genuflections before a wax statue of Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang shows itself to be increasingly resistant and publicly resistant to Chinese advice. Things have gotten more than a touch acrimonious in the aftermath of Jang’s elimination. In spite of the steady (and expected) professions from Beijing that no “channel” of influence to Pyongyang has been lost with the death of Jang Song-taek, frustration is clearly mounting on both sides.

In an interview with a Chinese television station, Zhang Liangui complained that South Korean analysis of Jang’s wrist bruises was overwrought. But Zhang reserved his most steady critiques for the North Koreans, who (and also according to Zhang’s colleagues) were in the middle of changing their economic deals with China. North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun left Jang’s death warrant up on the front of their Chinese homepage for over a month (no idle mistake, that), and Chinese television news editors had since refused to purge Jang Song-taek from their stock footage of North Korea, making him into the virtual equivalent of Banquo’s ghost.

On the whole, there were few positive signs that 2014 would be anything other than a year of recalibration and uneasy distancing for Sino-North Korean relations. China’s reluctant acceptance in December of North Korea’s new Special Economic Zone scheme, launched the prior month with no consultation, was one of the half-hearted Chinese attempts to at least pretend that things were proceeding normally even as high-level communication was poor.

China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, reemerged in late January with a cultural embassy of Chinese musicians and dancers from Dalian city and Jilin province who had come to Pyongyang to celebrate and buck up the Overseas Chinese community – another sign of the quest for stability and normalcy. China and North Korea had thus already begun mending fences in their peculiar way after the Lunar New Year, even as Chinese journalists wrote patronizingly about North Korean female football players in China unable to understand or use e-mail and bereft of the trust of their superiors.

Today, the North Korean leadership seems more prone to express itself in acts of military testing and rhetorical belligerence, none of which bring much succor to Beijing. The Hwanggumpyeong/Huangjinping island Special Economic Zone across from the new city in Dandong is nowhere near operational or transformative; the terminus to Beijing’s new bridge to North Korea is surrounded by a wall; there is no road from it to Sinuiju. Kim Jong-un shows few signs of returning to talks, let alone abandoning his nuclear weapons programme. The DPRK’s recent flirtations with Japan are surely viewed with extreme prejudice in Zhonghanhai and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Only at the United Nations are the old comrades still in lockstep, on human rights inquiries and unspeakable attempts of Western imperialism to blow up the girders of both of their Leninist Party-states, (i.e., the goal of the Commission of Inquiry also aims to call into question Youth Leagues, mass dancing, forcefully secularized countryside, arbitrary executions, etc.)

Geography and geopolitics will keep this relationship relatively stable, but there are ample grounds for further fracture (following distinctly recent abuse) in this marriage of convenience.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer in the Dept of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @Adamcathcart.

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