Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 4

By Gordon G. Chang

Will Kim Jong Il just slam down the phone on China’s president, Jiang Zemin? That’s what Beijing wants us to think. “If Kim tells Jiang he is going to test a nuclear weapon unless Jiang gives him more aid, what do we do? We give him more aid. We don’t have a choice,” says one Chinese analyst who has dealt with Pyongyang. “We have some influence, but we don’t have the kind of relationship where we can tell Kim what to do. If we tell him to do something, he doesn’t listen. If we threaten him, he listens even less. If Jiang called him, he might hang up.”

Hang up on the president of the world’s most populous country? Conventional wisdom says that the Chinese can’t do much to influence the North Koreans. Pyongyang thinks that Beijing cannot afford to see its colleague in communism collapse, so Kim Jong Il often ignores Jiang Zemin. No matter what Kim does, China must come to his aid, at least in the view of the pundits. The North Korean economy may be on the verge of failure, but it is Pyongyang that seems to hold the cards in Sino-Korean relations. Does weakness really confer such strength?

Soon we will find out. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear monitoring organization, certified to the UN Security Council North Korea’s noncompliance with its international obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The Security Council has recently deferred the troublesome issue by referring it to experts, but at some point the United Nations will have to confront the problem. As the situation in North Korea deteriorates, world leaders realize that something will have to be done–Kim Jong Il threatens the security of the region and even the rest of the world.

When the world speaks, will Beijing listen? China must soon decide how it will act. So far, the country’s foreign policy has been less than impressive, as hapless Foreign Ministry spokesmen stumble through their periodic briefings for the press. “We carry out our activities in a relatively silent way,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue, trying not to sound too lame earlier this month. In their own silent way, Chinese diplomats can stand on the sidelines when it comes to Iraq, which is not exactly considered their problem. Yet when they pretend they are mere bystanders with regard to neighbor North Korea, the world’s largest authoritarian state looks weak.

For the past two decades Beijing has toned down its foreign policy, wisely preferring to stress economic and societal development over the projection of power abroad. That’s why Kim Jong Il can get away with hanging up on the president of his much bigger neighbor. The erratic North Korean leader, an apparent threat to most surrounding countries, is considered merely a nuisance by the Chinese.

And there’s another reason why Kim can be so impolite on the phone. Beijing is undergoing a major political transition as the Third Generation of leaders gives way to the Fourth. Jiang Zemin, the “core” of the Third, wants to hold onto power as long as he can and has retained his foreign affairs and military portfolios. The ongoing struggle with his successor, Hu Jintao, has been conducted behind closed doors, but it is now beginning to break out into the open. As the conflict in this high-stakes game intensifies, contestants for power have no time for promoting dramatic shifts in foreign policy.

Unfortunately for Beijing, the world is not going to wait for it to resolve its internal leadership squabbles, which could take years to settle. China, a permanent Security Council member, will have to make some decisions with regard to world trouble spots well before the Communist Party decides who its next leader will be. Earlier this month American Secretary of State Colin Powell, referring to North Korea’s economic dependence on Beijing, said “China has a role to play and I hope China will play that role.”

So far, Beijing has gotten away with not playing much of a role at all. It has been able to convince a good number of Pyongyang watchers that it has limited say in the North Korean capital. Although Kim’s regime is particularly opaque, common sense, if nothing else, tells us that the North’s coldly rational leader knows that his regime could not sustain the loss of Beijing’s aid. The Chinese are North Korea’s largest source of food and energy. Some say that aid from Beijing is the only reason that Kim Jong Il is still ruling from Pyongyang today. “Most of the food in Pyongyang is from China,” says North Korean defector Ma Young Ae, a former counterintelligence agent. “The best way to stop the nuclear program is to stop the aid.”

In fact, Beijing can act tough with Pyongyang when it wants to. A few years ago, China, by momentarily turning off the aid tap, forced the North to return Chinese railcars that Kim tried to hold onto. More important, China can on occasion make North Korea do the right thing on the global stage. In June of 1994 Beijing apparently used indirect means to send to Pyongyang a message that it did not want to deliver itself. Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, ran an editorial suggesting that Beijing might adhere to any embargo imposed on North Korea and stop food and oil supplies to its communist neighbor. Pyongyang took the hint and immediately softened its position on starting talks on the then impending nuclear crisis.

Is history repeating itself? Early last month Ta Kung Pao ran a commentary from a prominent Chinese foreign policy expert who is sharply critical of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. “China should conscientiously put its security and development interests first, and this means with regard to the Korean nuclear crisis China’s first objective is to firmly cause North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons,” wrote Shi Yinhong.

However, Beijing is not doing anything firmly these days except avoiding the issues whenever it can. The next arena in which Beijing seems likely to practice procrastination is the UN Security Council, which must eventually decide what to do with all the expert opinion it receives. At UN headquarters the lobbying among nations can be fierce, but accepted wisdom says Pyongyang is still safe. “China will not make a deal with anyone that will hurt the interests of North Korea,” says one analyst in the Chinese capital.

If the Security Council takes up the issue of sanctions in the weeks ahead, Beijing will undoubtedly maneuver to sidetrack the debate as a means of saving its communist cousin. Should it not succeed and the matter goes to a vote, however, Beijing will come under the spotlight: China will have to decide whether to exercise its veto to protect Kim’s regime.

To borrow a phrase from U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, will we see the Old China, the staunch ally of North Korea, or a New China? Beijing is in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime realignment of its foreign policy. Chinese diplomats know that it is in their nation’s interest to disarm the erratic regime in the North, which has an irritating habit of putting Beijing in embarrassing situations. Moreover, as China’s export-driven economy becomes dependent on the world to take its products, the foreign policy establishment in Beijing must harmonize its world view with that of its important customers, especially the United States (against which China piled up a trade surplus exceeding the politically-sensitive US$100 billion mark last year).

On the other hand, in the “clash of civilizations” it is hard for Chinese diplomats to side with former enemies against the “lips and teeth” brethren of North Korea. Everyone knows that Chinese leaders are still stuck in the old ways of thinking and therefore want to protect Pyongyang if at all possible. Furthermore, nobody in the Chinese capital wants to think about the consequences of a collapse of the Kim family government: refugees running unsupervised throughout Northeastern China and American soldiers standing guard on the other side of the Yalu and Tumen rivers in a newly-unified Korea. And, of course, Chinese leaders have no time to think about shifting the basis of their foreign policy while the leadership transition continues.

What will China do? Unfortunately for Kim Jong Il, money talks louder than anything else in the Chinese capital these days. Moreover, as painful as it will be to shift its allegiance, Beijing realizes that the present government might not survive if it exercised its UN veto to let North Korea off the hook and then Kim did something truly awful. No nation wants to be blamed for what could happen next (including, but not limited to, a detonation of a North Korean device purchased by some bandit looking for 15 years of fame).

Is there any evidence of progress when it comes to Beijing? Its recent posturing on Iraq, although not constructive, looks tame, especially in comparison to that of nations that are supposed to be America’s friends. Moreover, China, a member of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, voted this month to certify North Korean noncompliance and send the matter to the Security Council. Although Chinese diplomats expressed their reluctance to kick the issue up to New York, they did the right thing when they finally had to make a choice. Finally, after a long period of siding with the North about the need to restrict talks to just Washington and Pyongyang, China has begun over the past couple of weeks to come around to the position that discussions with North Korea might best take place in a multilateral setting, as the Bush Administration insists.

Unless either the United States or North Korea backs down in the weeks ahead, Beijing will have to make a bigger choice soon–a choice between its past and its future. Although it will have to break a friendship going back more than five decades, China, as a practical matter, has little room to maneuver these days.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.