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Containment, Exporting Development, and Other Chinese Dreams


When North Korea detonated its first nuke ever, one month ago, everybody said Beijing got burned. But a few Chinese Foreign Ministry officials took the news much harder. In a private conversation with a Chinese newspaper editor later the same day, they wondered whether their ultimate bosses, a foreign policymaking body captained by Chinese leader Hu Jintao, had goaded Kim Jong-il into testing – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not. The last straw for Kim, in their minds, was Hu’s summit with Japan’s new leader Shinzo Abe a day before. Although the North’s threat to test was said to be a catalyst for the summit, in the end, they felt, the summit was a catalyst for the test.
“Perhaps they didn’t realize quite how much this would upset North Korea,” this editor mused, echoing their sentiment.

To support their hunch, these officials reviewed the tick-tock of the days before the nuke test. On October 2, somewhat unexpectedly, Beijing welcomed an overture from Abe, and suddenly the stage was set for the first summit between Japan and Chinese leaders in more than five years. Two days later, Pyongyang unveiled plans for the test. Abe and Hu met in Beijing on October 8 and afterward, the countries proclaimed a new dawn in Sino-Japanese ties and, using unusually shrill language for China, jointly declared a test by Pyongyang “unacceptable”. Pyongyang detonated the next day.

Never mind the impasse in six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, the many anniversaries the North was celebrating at the time of the test, or the fact that Abe had just arrived in South Korea when the North announced the news. It was the sight of China in bed with Japan, this editor’s sources speculated, that helped seal the decision – or at least the timing – for Pyongyang. After all, Kim’s negotiating strategy in the six-party talks had hinged on manipulating old allegiances and strategic differences among the other countries. But now, observed the editor at the time, “North Korea is basically saying to China: ‘If you’re with my enemy, then you’re my enemy too.’”

Maybe Kim and his generals did end up reading things it this way. But China most certainly does not. What this speculative version of events – true or not, intentional or unintentional – really shows is the degree to which Beijing has gone to disentangle its diplomacy from its outmoded fetters: history, socialist ideology and Cold War alliances. China is too, well, big to worry too much about old baggage.

Today, its pitch is all about ‘harmoniousness’, of course, and ‘win-win’ relationships. Underlying that gospel is an increasingly intense focus on national security – economic, military, geopolitical. Beijing is projecting soft power almost effortlessly via entrepreneurship, and mastering risk-benefit analysis. A dramatic testimony to the shift is the impression that Chinese officials themselves got in this case: that they could afford to aggravate their closest ideological soulmate – Korea – for the sake of closer kinship with Japan, their most bitter historic rival.

Everyone, anyone, is a potential friend to China these days. That of course includes such ill-reputed despots as Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who were in town this past weekend for the China-Africa Forum. So were 46 other African heads of state. Their respective flags fluttered side-by-side with China’s on Tianmenmen Square. On state television, Chinese businessmen beamed about happy dealings with their “black brothers” on the continent. And while China’s foray into Africa has provoked charges it is raping of African resources and helping propping up genocidal regimes, the Chinese have shrugged and answered with more loans and fellowships, double the annual aid (now $5 billion), and big deals to build railroads and refineries.

To Beijing’s critics, Africa is becoming the seminal metaphor of a mercantist Chinese diplomacy that’s based on low prices and no principles. Defenders counter that Beijing is, in fact, exporting its own model of nation-building and human rights. Which means state-led development and improving basic living conditions, with a few key caveats: undemocratic rule, snail-like social reform and ruthlessly trickle-down growth. That’s fine with most African potentates.

Will Chinese patronage have genuinely positive effects on the politicians and people of Africa? Well, much more than it has on the Kims and the North Koreans so far.

That explains why, since the early 1990′s in particular, pressure has been building domestically on Beijing to harden up its policy toward Pyongyang. Most people here think of their northern neighbor as a time warp out of 1960′s China. Many military strategists privately share the U.S. view of the North as a rogue state. In the foreign policy circles, the conventional wisdom is today that Beijing has spoiled Pyongyang for decades with food and oil. Not to mention the general indignity Chinese feel toward the Kim family for acting ungrateful ever since the Korean War.

If China had its druthers, North Korea simply would be a client much more like it. In the past couple years, officials and state academics have vented their frustrations with officialdom for going too soft on Pyongyang through fawning references to the years when Korea was a protectorate of China, prior to the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95. Toward the end, the top Chinese diplomat on the peninsula was an early 20th century strongman named Yuan Shikai. Yuan married a Korean woman but earned props for keeping a lid on Korean nationalism. “So a lot of top people say, ‘at that time, we went hard when we had to go hard, and soft when we had to go soft,’” observed the editor.

If only China could sell the North on butter over guns again: export its development model, and thereby contain Kim’s nuclear appetite. Instead, the more dependent Pyongyang has become on Beijing economically, the more distanced and mutually mistrustful the two capitals have become otherwise. Such is the Newtonian nature of juche, the mystic law of anti-imperialist self-reliance by which the Kims rule.

Only very recently has it hit home with Beijing that its policy toward Pyongyang – more carrot than stick – was a dead-end. Last year, China swapped the armed police manning the North Korean border with People’s Liberation Army troops. The same switch was made along other borders as well, so as not to make it seem directed at the North. But policy insiders privately admit that North Korea was the target. Judging by the drop in incidents involving North Korean asylum seekers in Beijing, the number crossing the border appears to be down. Should a war ensue or the regime implode, China wants to keep the number down. “They already realized that North Korea might make serious military move,” said the editor.

The last straw for China might have been the North Korean missile test in July. In September, at least according to customs figures released last week, China did not sell the North any oil at all. This suggests that Hu had given up on playing Mr. Nice guy long before October.

Contrary to his wooden public appearances, Hu Jintao is a pliant political operator. He himself heads the Communist Party leadership’s steering committee on foreign affairs, which gives him quite a bit of sway over North Korea policy along with advisers from China’s cabinet, foreign ministry, military and security forces. His diplomatic persona might be best described as passive-aggressive. Like many an ancient military Chinese military strategist, he sits back and waits for openings to make his most sensitive gestures. So did he blow it with North Korea last month? Or did he let it happen, knowing that it might be the only way forward?

For China, the upside of the nuke test is that has given Hu an internal mandate for a tough new approach. Yes, a hot debate is going on within policymaking circles over just how to proceed. But a lot more options are on the table, and the government has been quick to deploy them. Beijing already has backed U.N. sanctions, while slashing oil shipments and cut off North Korean business with its banks. And thereby, it would seem, China has pressured Pyongyang to rejoin six-party talks.

“There’s been a marked change in the leadership’s thinking” about North Korea, says Zhu Feng, director of the international security program at Peking University. “They know how to react to China’s national interests.”

Those interests might not include regime change in Pyongyang. But they do include requesting a little more respect for big brother over in Beijing. And for now, that’s probably the best bet for peace we have.

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