December 13, 2010

By Zhiqun Zhu

Since North Korea's recent artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and brought strong condemnations from the international community, the global limelight has focused on China as Beijing is perceived to be the lifeline of the recalcitrant North Korean regime.

Yet what is really tested are relations between China and the United States.

That China has not publicly criticized North Korea should not be construed as Beijing's support for North Korea's maverick behaviors. To fully comprehend the situation, one needs to understand the complexity of the issue and the dilemma China faces.

China's dilemma
China-North Korea relations are rooted in the Korean War, which has not officially ended since no peace treaty was signed when the fighting stopped in 1953.

After Beijing improved relations with the West in the 1970s and 1980s, it began to adopt a "two Koreas" policy, which eventually led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea in 1992.

Kim Il-sung reportedly howled at the Chinese emissary who delivered Beijing's decision to him. North Korea probably has never fully forgiven China's "betrayal."

South Korea has become a much more important economic partner for China. Trade between the two sides amounted to $141 billion in 2009, with China absorbing a quarter of South Korea's exports and South Korea being a major investor in China. The two countries plan to open free-trade talks in 2011 and increase their bilateral trade to $300 billion a year by 2015.

On the other hand, while some of China's northeast border regions benefit from trading with North Korea, the world's last Stalinist country is essentially a black hole sucking away China's resources.

Politically and diplomatically North Korea has become a liability for China. Yet strategically, North Korea remains valuable to China as a buffer separating the U.S. and South Korean forces from China. Beijing has other concerns too.

For example, if North Korea suddenly collapses as a result of international and Chinese pressure, millions of hungry and desperate North Korean people will flood into China, creating a humanitarian disaster and tremendous political, social and economic burdens on China.

Gunboat diplomacy
The North Korea conundrum epitomizes U.S.-China competition in East Asia. While the United States and its allies have resorted to "gunboat diplomacy" by sending warships to the region and staging massive military exercises near North Korea and China, Beijing prefers talks and negotiations and has called for restraint.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea rejected China's proposal for the resumption of the six-party talks for the North's denuclearization, yet the foreign ministers of the three allies held their own exclusive meetings in Washington.

Such uncoordinated efforts run the risk of reviving the Korean War-era division of East Asia into opposite camps, with the United States, Japan and South Korea on one side, China, Russia and North Korea on the other, and will only make matters worse.

The "gunboat diplomacy" is unlikely to solve the problem since it is built upon false assumptions: North Korea is scared now, and it will not be provocative again.

Although not directly criticizing North Korea's action, Chinese leaders expressed opposition to "any provocative military behavior" that escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a statement that would also apply to the U.S.-South Korean joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the even larger U.S.-Japan military exercises south of Japan.

Winston Churchill once said, to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war. The United States and its allies have to decide what to do after the show of force. If they really want to solve the North Korea problem, they'd have to engage North Korea directly. To reject dialogue with North Korea as a punishment of its bad behavior is simply a poor decision.

Strengthening U.S.-China relations
Few in China still consider North Korea an ally. Secret cables made open by WikiLeaks, if reliable, confirm that the Chinese leadership is ready to abandon North Korea. However, all things considered, it seems that maintaining the Korean Peninsula status quo is in the best interest of China, and arguably of all other parties involved.

After all, South Korean people are not enthusiastic about unification now, let alone sharing the hefty economic costs of taking over North Korea.

A unified and pro-West Korea also means that it will be difficult for the United States to justify its forward troop deployment in Korea and Japan. Even Japan will have second thoughts about having a nuclear-equipped and historically anti-Japan neighbor with over 70 million people.

The United States and China are suspicious of each other's long-term intentions. The U.S. will continue to be a major Asian power in the years ahead and will maintain troops in the region as an insurance against a potentially aggressive China.

Beijing is deeply concerned about a quick South Korean and U.S. takeover of North Korea with U.S. troops at China's doorsteps. Beijing and Washington seem to be sliding into a vicious cycle of mutual strategic mistrust. The deeper the mistrust, the more valuable North Korea is to China.

Clearly, the key to solving the North Korea problem lies in cooperative U.S.-China relations. Beijing and Washington must make sure that their long-term interests in Asia do not clash. A strong relationship between Beijing and Washington is crucial for untying the North Korea knot and achieving long-lasting peace in Asia.

Posted Dec. 13, 2010