March 10, 2013 4:55 pm

China adjusts approach to North Korea

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The contrast could not have been more striking. Some delegates at China’s National People’s Congress last week were heatedly discussing whether Beijing should scrap its alliance with North Korea.

But when Yang Jiechi, foreign minister, faced the press at the weekend, he did not divert an inch from Beijing’s traditional policy script.

“We have always believed that sanctions are not the end of the Security Council’s actions, nor are they the way to fundamentally resolve the issues in question,” he said. Mr Yang – again – urged calm and restraint on all sides.

Following the adoption last Thursday of a new round of sanctions against North Korea, all eyes are on China to see how far it will go in cutting support for its long-time ally.

“Beijing is the key actor with regard to all the banking and trans-shipping issues. […] If the Chinese government chooses to enforce resolution 2094 rigorously, it could seriously disrupt, if not end, North Korea’s proliferation activities,” write Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard from the Peterson Institute for International Economics on their blog.

“[The new resolution] is unlikely to advance the denuclearisation agenda unless China decides to treat them as a floor rather than a ceiling and really apply the pressure.”

The contrast between increasingly public challenges to Beijing’s dated alliance with Pyongyang and its cautious official response underlines the dilemma China finds itself in. A foreign policy with the main goal of maintaining stability appears to be failing in the case of North Korea, and now the remaining options seem to pose the risk of making things even worse.

“Chaos in the Korean peninsula would put China’s security under huge pressure,” says Cai Jian, deputy director of the Korea Center at Fudan university in Shanghai.

He says China will enforce the latest sanctions “a little bit more strictly than in the past but not too strictly”.

There is a growing consensus in Beijing that the North Korean government’s brinkmanship is harming Beijing’s interests and that just repeating past appeals to return to the negotiating table is having no effect.

Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of the Communist party publication Study Times, wrote in the FT earlier this month that Beijing should ‘abandon North Korea’ as Pyongyang had long lost its supposed strategic value as a “buffer”, and China’s interests and values were more aligned with the west.

The government has been very careful not to back such radical change, but it is quietly adjusting its attitude.

Although China’s support for the latest Security Council resolution is no sharp change following its backing for three earlier rounds of sanctions against North Korea, diplomats say it has been more engaged in consultations, especially with the US.

“Although the US and China differ in their political tactics towards North Korea, they both advocate safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” says Wei Zhijiang, director of the Korea Studies Institute at Sun Yat-sen University. “Therefore I personally believe that the two should work together to control the crisis on the Korean peninsula. In other words, there is a lot of room for strategic co-operation between China and the US on the Korean peninsula problem.”

Beijing’s problem lies in how to do this. Chinese diplomats last week rejected almost angrily suggestions of a US-China deal on a draft resolution. Chinese foreign policy experts fret that taking too hard a line against North Korea, or being seen as openly siding with Washington, could trigger either more bellicose acts from Pyongyang or even the regime’s collapse – both scenarios which Beijing views as worse than the status quo.

Chinese academics point to recent incidents where Beijing has been reluctant to turn against regimes it has long worked with even where there was less at stake than in North Korea. China’s insistence that it must not interfere in other nations’ internal affairs has made it, alongside Russia, a de facto backer of the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and exposed it to blame for the failure to end the country’s two years of civil war. In Libya, Chinese companies saw their operations disrupted following the overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi as Beijing had backed his regime until the very end.

“This was inconvenient, but we stuck to our principles,” says a Chinese diplomat. “In the case of North Korea, we are bound by more than just principles: We have a friendship treaty. So we can only make the most subtle of adjustments.”

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

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