China must take a hard line on both North and South Korea
Deng Yuwen says Beijing’s current strategy on the Korean peninsula is plainly not working. It must lose no time in coming down hard on Seoul over the THAAD anti-missile defence system and continue to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear tests
After South Korea’s Lotte Group agreed on a land swap with the military that will enable the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defence system, the Chinese government has been fanning the flames for a boycott of the retail giant. This is neither necessary nor wise.
Such boycotts should come from people’s decisions, and not be stirred up by governments. In fact, history shows that such agitation for patriotism and nationalism often backfires.
If the government believes Lotte’s decision has harmed China’s national security and interests, it absolutely has a responsibility to retaliate with sanctions on the Lotte Group – but not by encouraging a consumer boycott. So far, however, Beijing has made no announcement that it would officially sanction Lotte or South Korean companies.
As a matter of fact, I believe China should have retaliated with sanctions and other measures soon after South Korea announced its decision last July that it would deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system. If the Chinese government had taken a more hardline approach of, say, recalling its ambassador to South Korea, instead of just issuing verbal protests, it might have persuaded Seoul to rethink its decision.
Whatever the grounds were for Beijing’s game plan, it has clearly made a serious mistake in judgment. Not long after Seoul announced its decision to deploy THAAD to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, President Park Geun-hye became caught up in a corruption scandal involving the undue influence of her confidant Choi Soon-sil, plunging her administration into chaos. A wave of anti-Park protests roiled the country,and Park herself is facing impeachment.
Under such circumstances, Beijing might have calculated that the THAAD decision would be rolled back, or at least postponed until a new president came to power. To be sure, some of the Korean peninsula scholars and experts on the mainland hold such views, and perhaps it was their advice that misled the Chinese government into not taking immediate action against Seoul.
More broadly, it is clear that Beijing’s strategy on the Korean peninsula is not working. This would explain why THAAD became a flashpoint in relations between China and South Korea in the first place and why the relationship is now at a low point. Beijing’s strategy has been to try and walk a fine line between North and South Korea, playing off both and offending neither; in other words, it wants a foot in each camp. Such a strategy requires strength and control – that is, national power, and the skill to demonstrate this power.
To be honest, Beijing is nowhere near powerful enough to have the final say on matters on the Korean peninsula, nor does it have the diplomatic skill needed to maintain the balance it seeks. The result is that it has gained only resentment from both Seoul and Pyongyang.
Of course, at this stage, an abrupt reversal of policy is not advisable, as that could lead to worse consequences. On THAAD, Beijing must play hardball. Such a stance may not ultimately stop its deployment, but it is necessary for two reasons. First, it is consistent with Beijing’s opposition from the start. China would become a laughing stock if it were to back down now.
Second, if Seoul feels the bite of Beijing’s anger, it may re-evaluate the gains and losses from its decision. At the least, it would deter Seoul from escalating its action. North Korea may pose a threat to the South, but much of the fear is psychological. By contrast, the pain of Chinese retaliation would be immediately felt by Seoul. This would no doubt force the country to weigh the costs of having a poor relationship with China, and the next Korean government may well decide – on careful consideration of the costs and benefits – to make adjustments to its THAAD policy.
Since Seoul has repeatedly claimed that China is not the target of its THAAD deployment, if it treasures its ties with Beijing, why does it not try and persuade the US to stop or ratchet down its surveillance of China? This may well provide the opportunity for a breakthrough on the impasse. Thus, the harder China’s stance, the more likely it is that the South will reconsider its THAAD deployment.
Beijing can exert economic, political, diplomatic and security pressure on Seoul, such as by reducing its diplomatic contacts with Seoul and by appearing to draw closer to Pyongyang. A closer, more stable relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing would make reunification of the Korean peninsular less likely, and is surely a development South Korea does not want to see.
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At the same time, however, Beijing should also take a hardline stance towards Pyongyang. Outwardly, Beijing can take a more conciliatory attitude, but – to put it bluntly – it should be fake. By no means should Pyongyang be under the illusion that Beijing supports its nuclear development. In other words, Beijing can pretend to draw closer to Pyongyang to put political pressure on Seoul, but Pyongyang should be made aware that a condition for good relations with Beijing is that it must end its nuclear testing. Beijing should maintain its sanctions against Pyongyang, as required by the UN resolution, although it could increase its humanitarian aid to Pyongyang and emphasise its alliance.
I believe Beijing should be tough with both South and North Korea, though the hard line adopted should be different in nature. Against Seoul, its hard line should be tactical, used as a tool to get China-South Korea relations back on track. Against Pyongyang, it should be based on strategic principle, with the aim of getting the regime to abandon its nuclear plan. These two kinds of hardline policies should not be confused.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank