Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 5

The likelihood of Beijing putting more pressure on Pyongyang regarding the nuclear issue has decreased given Hu Jintao’s perception that a plethora of “anti-China” actions have been emanating from the Bush administration. This has increased the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flaunting the North Korean card against America’s so-called containment policy against China – as well as Washington’s harder line on Iran.

It is noteworthy that Beijing has put the blame of Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship on U.S. “intransigence” toward the DPRK as much as – if not even more than – the iniquity and irrationality of strongman Kim Jong-Il. Officially, the Chinese government has deplored North Korea’s February 10 admission of the ownership of nuclear weapons and its withdrawal from the Beijing-based six-party talks. Thus Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan reiterated China’s firm opposition to the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “The results of the six-party talks have been achieved not without difficulty,” he said. “And they should be treasured by all parties.” Kong called upon both North Korea and the U.S. to display “more sincerity, good intentions and flexibility.”

State media and commentators have gone further, criticizing Washington’s unremittingly antagonistic attitude toward the Kim regime. The official International Herald Leader said the “direct cause” of Pyongyang’s pulling out of the talks was “America’s long-standing insistence on a policy of hostility toward North Korea.” Zhang Liangui, an international affairs professor at the CCP Central Party School, hinted that it would be futile for the U.S. and its allies such as Japan to expect Beijing to solve the North Korean problem for them. “The U.S. hopes to push China to the front of the stage so that Beijing can take the chestnuts out of the fire for America,” said Professor Zhang, using a Chinese proverb that refers to one country using another one as a pawn.

This is not to say, of course, that Beijing will not come up with some gestures to safeguard its hard-earned reputation as a responsible member of the international community. Given that China has garnered widespread credit for playing the role of mediator regarding the North Korean imbroglio, the CCP leadership has at least gone through the motions of sending an envoy to Pyongyang to persuade Kim to return to the negotiation table. Wang Jiarui, Head of the CCP International Liaison Department, was in Pyongyang for talks with North Korean officials including Kim. However, the strongman’s response to Wang – that Pyongyang had never withdrawn from the six-party talks and that it was ready to re-join the discussions “if conditions are met” – amounted to little more than stonewalling. And Washington made it clear immediately that it would not offer Kim further inducements to return to the negotiation table.

Diplomatic sources in the Chinese capital said Beijing saw no reason to cooperate with the U.S. on North Korea given what it saw as the relentless exacerbation of Washington’s “anti-China containment policy.” On February 19, the U.S. and Japan issued a joint statement that for the first time cited the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan crisis as one of their “common strategic objectives.” And the revised U.S.-Japan security guidelines would indicate that developments in the Taiwan Strait were a legitimate concern for the two allies. The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately blasted Washington and Tokyo for “meddling in the internal affairs of China, and hurting China’s sovereignty.” The Chinese leadership also took exception to a CIA report saying that China’s defense buildup might “tilt the balance of the Taiwan Strait” and threaten U.S. troops in the Asian region.

Reflecting the opinion of the policy-setting CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), which is led by President Hu, the Chinese media have raised alarms over enhanced efforts by Washington to weidu, or to “encircle and block up” China. In a special issue late February, the authoritative Outlook Weekly noted that the U.S. was trying to encircle China from the east, west and south. It said Washington had used the excuse of fighting terrorism to boost its troop strength in regions ranging from Afghanistan to Guam, and that “China is exposed to enemy troops on the east, west and south fronts.”

Beijing is particularly disturbed by the growing role of Japan in this Washington-led “containment policy.” Chinese scholars and media commentators have pointed out that Japan has become the “Asia headquarters” of U.S. forces. And given that Tokyo’s just-released National Defense Program Guideline has named China as a major security concern for the country, Japan seems to be working seamlessly with the U.S. in blunting the emergence of the PRC as a regional superpower. Moreover, Washington and Tokyo have from Beijing’s perspective been rubbing salt on newly reopened wounds by using Taiwan as an excuse in containing China’s rise. According to Peking University scholar Wang Yong, Japan has become “America’s agent in Asia” – and Tokyo, in addition to the U.S., is using Taiwan to “pin down and tie up” the mainland.

Beijing’s response to the containment policy has been to speed up the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, in particular the navy and the air force. Diplomatic analysts said new commander-in-chief Hu had vowed to boost the PLA budget, as well as the speed and scale of the procurement of hardware from Russia – and from the European Union after the latter’s expected lifting of its 16-year-old arms embargo on China later this year.

Diplomatically, however, the LGFA has limited ways and means to thwart Washington’s containment policy. And North Korea – whose survival is dependent to a large extent on China’s food, fuel and technological aid – has emerged as a useful card with which Beijing could use to put pressure on the U.S. and Japan to climb down from their alleged encirclement plot against the PRC. For example, Chinese leaders and diplomats last year put forward a quid pro quo known as “North Korea in exchange for Taiwan,” meaning that Beijing would help rein in Kim if Washington agrees to stop the pro-independence gambit of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.

Since President Kim’s trip to Beijing last April, when he was met by all nine members of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, relations between the two erstwhile “lips-and-teeth” neighbors have improved. For example, different Chinese ministries and departments have sent more advisers to the DPRK mainly to help revive the destitute country’s agriculture and economy. A senior Western diplomat in Beijing said Pyongyang had alerted Beijing ahead of its bombshell announcement earlier this month about the possession of nuclear weapons. The diplomat indicated while the Hu leadership was opposed to Kim starting a program of weapons of mass destruction, it also saw the opportunity of using Pyongyang to pin down the U.S. and Japan.

At the same time, Beijing hopes that a crisis on the Korean Peninsula would divert the attention of the Bush administration from the Middle East – and help persuade Washington to think twice before targeting Iran. A Beijing source close to the security establishment said the Hu leadership feared the White House would take some form of military action against Iran as early as 2007, assuming that conditions in Iraq would stabilize in the coming two years. “Beijing largely acquiesced in America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003,” the source said. “But given China’s multi-billion dollar investment in Iranian oilfields and other resources, the Hu leadership would pull out the stops to prevent Iran from going the way of Iraq.” Apart from pouring huge funds into Iranian oil facilities and pipelines, Beijing is expected to send more technological experts and advisers to its quasi-ally in the Middle East.

The CCP leadership is, of course, aware of the fact that like many diplomatic tools, the North Korean card could be a double-edged sword. For example, Kim’s bullying tactics have been used by Tokyo as justification for augmenting Japan’s military budget as well as revising the country’s “peace constitution.” Moreover, Hu and his advisers know fully well that Kim is a perfidious gambler who could one day trip up even its mentor, China.

For the time being, however, the party chief and Central Military Commission Chairman seems to have followed the advice of PLA generals as well as hawkish elements in China’s security establishment. These hardliners have advocated providing more support to the Kim regime right after the current nuclear crisis started in October 2002. And while the CCP and CMC leadership had refused Kim’s request for anti-missile batteries to counter America’s possible pre-emptive strikes, the PLA command has boosted the level of troops and hardware along the border with North Korea. And the Hu-led LGFA has spurned the advice of liberal scholars that Beijing follow Moscow’s lead in ending China and North Korea’s decades-old mutual defense treaty. Instead, the CCP leadership has held a series of internal briefing sessions to explain to cadres in various fields the reasons behind Beijing’s continued support for the rogue regime.

Willy Lam is a Hong Kong-based scholar and journalist specializing in Communist Party politics and Chinese foreign policy.