N Korea situation a tough test for China's new leaders

Many officials and ordinary people now believe Pyongyang's belligerence is undermining regional stability and China's own interests

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 7:35am

Given the tension over the Korean peninsula, one would have expected the meetings on Saturday between visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry and the top Chinese leaders to have focused on North Korea's escalating belligerence and its threat to the Pacific region, and to shed light on how two of the world's most important countries might co-operate to contain the crisis.

That appears not to have been the case, if one goes by mainland state media reports of the meetings. According to Chinese-language reports by Xinhua, neither President Xi Jinping nor Kerry even mentioned North Korea, as they were busy trumpeting the need to take a strategic and long-term view of Sino-US ties, increase the frequency of high-level visits and jointly tackle challenges.

Xinhua's English-language reports had Kerry mentioning North Korea in his opening remarks during a five-minute photo call with journalists, in which he told Xi "this is obviously a critical time with some very challenging issues - issues regarding the Korean Peninsula, the challenges of Iran and nuclear weapons, Syria and the Middle East, and the economies around the world are in need of a boost".

Premier Li Keqiang was a little more forthright, telling Kerry that troublemaking on the Korean issue would harm the interests of all parties involved, according to Xinhua. "To do that is no different from lifting a rock, only to drop it on one's own toes," Li was quoted as saying, using a Chinese proverb. There is little doubt that Li's remarks would be interpreted as a clear warning to North Korea, but they could also be subtly aimed at the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Only in meetings between Kerry and his Chinese counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi , did the Chinese officials express serious concerns and reiterate the goals of having a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and settling the issue though dialogue.

What do all these differences in communication mean? Kerry's China trip is clearly aimed at urging Beijing to lean harder on Pyongyang to back down from a confrontation with the US, as China is seen as the only country with enough economic and political leverage to influence North Korea. But the Chinese leaders' public statements have given little away as to whether Kerry has achieved his goal.

Over the past few months, Beijing has shifted its tone on North Korea by backing UN sanctions against it and allowing state media to carry articles sharply critical of Pyongyang.

In a recent speech, Xi pointedly said that no country should be allowed to throw a region - and even the whole world - into chaos for selfish gain, with many analysts interpreting Xi's remarks as clearly referring to North Korea.

But internally, Chinese leaders and analysts, and even ordinary people, are clearly divided over how to deal with the issue. The long-held view is that, if China leans harder on North Korea by cutting off vital supplies of fuel and food, the collapse of the country could result, sending refugees flooding into China. More importantly, Beijing would lose a buffer against the US-led encirclement of China.

But many officials and ordinary mainlanders now believe the increasingly belligerent North Korea is undermining regional stability and harming China's own interests. Its behaviour will give Washington a valid excuse to increase its military presence in Asia and may prompt Japan and other Asian countries to ramp up their military spending at a time when China faces increasingly tense disputes with some of its neighbours. It is time that China adjusted its policies towards Pyongyang.

Under rising domestic and international pressure, deciding how to deal with Pyongyang is proving a stern test of China's new leaders, who have kept their cards close to their chests so far.

But one thing is clear. From the perspective of many Chinese officials and analysts, Washington should not blame Beijing for not doing enough and, in fact, should work harder itself at reining in North Korea. In a commentary released on Friday, Xinhua said Washington held the key to "alleviating suffocating tensions" on the Korean Peninsula. It said Washington's decades of sanctions and shows of force were the crux of the latest flare-up of tensions.

"Yet it seems that Washington has not realised the damage of its policy and practice. It sent B-52 and B-2 bombers to South Korea to participate in war games, which was responded to by [North Korea's] announcement that it had entered a 'state of war' with South Korea," the commentary said. It urged Washington to ditch its confrontational policies and engage in talks with Pyongyang to address its strong sense of insecurity.

It is interesting to note that after weeks of tough talk and joint military exercises aimed at North Korea, both the US and South Korea have started to mute their military beating and sound more conciliatory in the past few days. Both Kerry and South Korea's new President, Park Geun-hye, have offered to talk to Pyongyang in the hope of bringing it back to the negotiating table.

Despite the flurry of high-level diplomatic activities, ordinary people are still none the wiser as to how this crisis will end.