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Red Menace?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The longer China continues propping up the Kim Jong-Il regime and the longer Beijing ignores Pyongyang’s violent provocations, the more likely violent conflict becomes.

The Obama administration has acted appropriately by announcing its full support of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s implementation of punitive measures for North Korea, following South Korea's investigation of the sinking of its Cheonan vessel. The same cannot be said of China, which at times seems to actively eschew any pretense of being a “responsible stakeholder.”

Beijing has described the “incident” as “unfortunate.” Commenting on the release of the findings, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu explained China’s position: “China has noted the investigation results released by the ROK [South Korea]. We maintain that all parties should stay calm, exercise restraint and properly handle relevant issues so as to avoid the escalation of the situation.”

Beijing has not, as of yet, accepted the Cheonan investigation’s conclusion that a North Korean submarine was responsible for the sinking, nor has it recognized that Pyongyang has failed to “stay calm, exercise restraint,” or “properly handle” anything at all. Clearly, the North Korean attack—an act of war—has not yet led China to reassess its interests on the Korean peninsula.

China views North Korea as a buffer between itself and American forces and wishes to avoid a unified Korea that remains allied to the United States.

Beijing sees the survival of the Kim regime and the preservation of an independent North Korea as in its national security interests. China views North Korea as a buffer between itself and American forces and wishes to avoid, seemingly at all costs, a unified Korea that remains allied to the United States and that continues to host U.S. troops.

One hopes that this latest provocation will lead to a policy review in China. North Korea poses, without question, a threat to international peace and security; if that was not clear before, it certainly is now. Armed with nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-Il believes he can act with impunity and need not fear an armed South Korean or American response. China, it seems, assumes the same as well.

Though a retaliatory military strike might be justified, Seoul has in this instance decided on a more prudent course. But it is folly to think that South Korea can continue to absorb blows such as this most recent one without eventually responding in kind. Has Kim considered that there might be a red line for the ROK? What if all of the Cheonan’s sailors had died in the sinking? What if the North’s submarine had sunk—intentionally or otherwise—a civilian vessel instead? It would serve Pyongyang and Beijing well to remember that the ROK is a democracy and that the South Korean government must be responsive to its citizens; an angry populace cannot be controlled in South Korea as easily as it can be in the ROK’s authoritarian neighbors.

Beijing has not, as of yet, accepted the Cheonan investigation’s conclusion that a North Korean submarine was responsible for the sinking.

The prospect for a real conflict in Northeast Asia, which involves not only the Koreas but the United States and Japan as well, is something Beijing’s planners must consider. The longer China continues propping up the Kim regime and the longer Beijing ignores Pyongyang’s violent provocations, the more likely violent conflict becomes. And with the United States and ROK responding to the latest attack by carrying out joint naval exercises, there is always the prospect of an accident leading to escalation should the North Korean navy not steer clear.

Such a conflict cannot be in China’s interests. Not only would it have negative economic consequences for all parties in the region, it would likely result in the resolution of the Korean question on Seoul’s and Washington’s terms. Though China could insert itself in a conflict to ensure it had a say in the peace that would follow, the possible implications of such an intervention are both difficult to predict and quite possibly disastrous.

If China continues to view the preservation of the Kim regime as in its own interests, then Beijing has few good options. But its current policy, which ensures the continuance of a volatile state of affairs, is certainly a bad one. In the short term, China will be able to prop up the North Korean government and maintain a buffer on the peninsula. Over the longer term, China’s policy is destabilizing and may well lead to a costly conflict and the very result Beijing wishes to avoid.

Over the longer term, China’s policy is destabilizing and may very well lead to a costly conflict and the very result Beijing wishes to avoid.

What, then, is China to do? Beijing should reconsider just how important a peninsular buffer is. Imagine for a moment that China cooperates with the international community in punishing Kim Jong-Il and truly isolating North Korea, thus creating the conditions for the final demise of the Kim regime and for the reunification of the peninsula. Following Kim’s downfall and Korean unification, China, to its chagrin, might find itself sharing a border with a U.S. ally that hosts U.S. troops. But China would have also cooperated with the United States and its allies in eliminating one of Asia’s greatest threats to international peace and security. A potential flashpoint for Sino-U.S. conflict would cease to exist, making the presence of American forces in Korea less concerning. China, moreover, which so wishes to be recognized as a global leader, would be lauded for acting responsibly. Having demonstrated both flexibility and a commitment to cooperate with others on a seemingly intractable international issue, China might see reduced tensions with neighbors and with the United States.

China’s policy of friendship with and support for North Korea has served Beijing well for six decades. Abandonment of that policy would mark a somewhat radical reversal, and the People’s Republic is not prone to making such changes. But today there is an argument to be made in Beijing that its interests on the Korean peninsula increasingly align with those of Washington and Seoul. Hopefully, the sinking of the Cheonan will lead some important voices to start making that argument.

Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also discussed China’s expansionist strategy in “China and the Lost Pearls,” the National Security Administration’s downgrade on China in “I Spy? Not Anymore,” and said, “Australia Understands the China Threat. Does the U.S.?” AEI scholar Michael Auslin reviewed “Asia’s Troubled Waters” and John Bolton discussed U.S. policy towards North Korea in “Obama Fiddles, a Rogue Schemes.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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