Saturday, April 13, 2013

Not Ready for Prime Time: China's Relationship with North Korea

Yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese government officials to press for that country's assistance in lowering the temperature in the region that has been caused by increasingly bellicose behavior by North Korea.  While Beijing has been concerned regarding the increased American military buildup in the region over the past few weeks, it only needs to look inward for whom to blame. 

Over the past month the United States has been forced to respond to the escalating diplomatic and military posture of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) in a carefully calculated fashion.  It is during this time that the United States has reassured two of its closest allies in the region the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan by both words and actions that it will not be pushed into the diplomatic trap that the DPRK has laid out to be fallen into.  Although the United States has taken some precautionary measures in the form of missile defense batteries in Guam and in the near future for Alaska, it has thus far shown considerable restraint towards further military posturing in the region towards North Korea possibly with the thought process that further actions could back North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un into a corner in which he could feel forced to respond with military action towards it---or be faced with a potential backlash from his military commanders who remain skeptical of his military credentials. 

While the United States has been forced to show its commitment to not only its allies in the region, but to maintaining overall stability in the region itself, China has thus far elected to remain in the background and refusing to take responsibility in not only a leadership role in the region; but it has also done little to use its considerable influence with North Korea in lowering the temperature of an increasingly heated situation.

The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is once again presenting a clear choice for states in the region to view two distinct policies between those of the United States and China regarding regional stability.  In recent years China has used its increasingly strengthened economic portfolio and modernizing military to push territorial claims in the South and East China Sea, which has in turn forced states such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam  to reconsider the level of trust that it is willing to place in China's long term regional ambitions, with the results being increased cooperation with the United States on a variety of levels, including enhanced military cooperation.  In October, the Philippines announced that it would allow the United States navy to return to Subic Bay  on a semi-permanent basis--likely the result of China's increased maritime activity in the Scarborough Shoal  area.  Vietnam has also made overtures to the US regarding use of its deep water port in Cam Ranh Bay.  Such actions taken by these states are not the result of American actions, but rather due to Beijing's. 

The current situation on the Korean Peninsula offers an opportunity for China to show that it is willing to take on the role of a responsible leader in the region; instead it has shown that it is not ready to embrace such a position.  To date, the Chinese leadership has only offered token statements, urging restraint and calm directed at both North Korea and the United States.  China holds considerable leverage over its long-time ally, with the DPRK dependent upon nearly 70% of its total trade with China.  Such leverage gives Beijing myriad options in pressuring Pyongyang to reign in its provocative behavior.  Yet to date, the only major known activity that the PRC has taken regarding the current situation is that it has looked to fortify its border  with North Korea in the scenario that conflict takes place and it can potentially stop millions of North Korean refugees from flooding across the Yalu River border that separates the two countries. 

The current situation in North Korea shows yet another example why the PRC leadership is not yet ready to take on a trusted leadership role in Eastern Asia.  Some US government officials, scholars, and think tank officials have theorized that by bending to China's position on specific issues, such as Taiwan, human rights, and other positions taken by Beijing that run counter to American interests, China will be more willing to take on a leadership role in cases such as using its influence on North Korea to maintain stability in the region.  While the citizens of China have increasingly begun to question its governments relationship with North Korea, perhaps CCP leader Xi Jinping should do the same.

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