Home > Uncategorized > China in a Difficult Position after Last Two Days in Korea

China in a Difficult Position after Last Two Days in Korea

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Kim Jong-il during his visit to Changchun, China, earlier this year. Used under fair use guidelines.

By Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Fellow, Freeman Chair in China Studies, CSIS

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have caught the Chinese off guard and put Beijing in the spotlight, which is something that China always seeks to avoid. North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island, and the revelation that Pyongyang has built a new facility to rapidly enrich uranium undoubtedly are most assuredly worrisome to the Chinese. When Kim Jong Il visited Beijing and Changchun earlier this year, Hu Jintao stressed that their two countries needed to reinforce strategic coordination, including: 1) exchanging views “in a timely manner and regularly on major domestic and diplomatic issues, the international and regional situation, as well as on governance experience;” and 2) strengthening “coordination in international and regional affairs to better serve regional peace and stability.” This was a clear admonishment to Kim that China wanted no surprises, and expected North Korea to refrain from any provocations and to create conditions to resume the six party talks.

How will Beijing react to the DPRK’s latest antics? At the regular briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman voiced China’s concern and called for the “relevant parties” to “do more to contribute to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula.” The spokesman judiciously avoided assigning any blame for the attack on the South, saying that “The situation needs to be verified.” This response is very much in line with China’s refusal to condemn North Korea for the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, last March.

Preserving stability on the Korean Peninsula remains China’s top priority. Beijing is keen to see the DPRK’s leadership succession proceed smoothly and to resume the six party talks. In addition, the Chinese want to repair their relationship with Seoul, which was severely damaged over China’s unwillingness to finger North Korea as the perpetrator of the attack on the Cheonan. China’s interests suggest that Beijing will do its best to avert any discussion of the recent developments at the U.N. and will once again seek to avoid taking sides. Instead, the Chinese will urge all parties to remain calm and resume negotiations.

With no good options to advance their shared goals of halting North Korea’s provocations and reversing its progress in developing nuclear weapons, the U.S., South Korea and Japan will unquestionably step up pressure on China to use its leverage over Pyongyang. Despite Beijing’s whining about its limited influence over the North, China remains North Korea’s primary financial and political patron. If a consensus on how to cope with the new worrisome developments cannot be reached with the Chinese in the coming two months, the North Korea crisis will be front and center during the mid-January visit to China by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the U.S. the following week. After a year of unremitting friction between the U.S. and China, Beijing is eager to demonstrate that Sino-U.S. relations are stable and positive; it will not welcome being depicted as shirking its international responsibilities during Hu’s state visit. Therefore, in the next two months, the U.S. has some leverage it can bring to bear to encourage the Chinese to bring their friends in Pyongyang to heel.

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