Will China shift policy toward its wayward ally?

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 23, 2012 - 20:43
  • Updated : Apr 23, 2012 - 20:43
Moves to pressure North Korea spark speculation over possible policy change

China’s recent unusual moves against North Korea’s rocket launch and potential nuclear test have raised the question of whether Beijing is shifting its stance toward its unruly ally.

Experts are divided over the issue. Some pointed out signs of China rethinking its policy as the North’s saber-ratting undermines its national interests. Others argue that given the strategic value of the North, Beijing may not consider any significant change.

After the botched rocket launch on April 13, China agreed last Monday at the U.N. Security Council to issue a presidential statement strongly condemning the North.

The move was seen as unusual considering that it had always taken the side of the North even after Pyongyang shelled the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong, killing two marines and two civilians in November 2010.

In line with this move, the Global Times, the sister paper of the Chinese Communist Party’s organ People’s Daily, issued a rare strong message against the North.

In an editorial dated April 17, entitled “Pyongyang must remember to heed China’s advice,” the paper apparently urged the North not to take any provocative action that could destabilize the region.

“Pyongyang is not the only thing on China’s diplomatic agenda. It has far-reaching stakes to consider. If Pyongyang also cherishes the bilateral relationship, it should commit itself to expanding shared interests, not expanding conflicts,” it said.

“There is a prevailing theory that China’s North Korean policy has been abducted by Pyongyang, and that it can now do as it wishes. We hope Pyongyang hasn’t been misled ... It will pay the price if it really tries to abduct China’s North Korea policy.”
North Korean soldiers, students and civilians surround giant portraits of late leaders Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il at Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang for a rally denouncing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Friday. (AP-Yonhap News)

Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University, said that these moves by China do not signify that its overall strategy toward Pyongyang will change significantly.

“China’s recent position at the U.N. is a reflection of the very difficult position that China is in internationally, and is more a result of increasing pressure in the international community rather than any significant shift in policy,” Hwang told The Korea Herald.

“China’s long-term and top interest regarding the Korean Peninsula is not for the peninsula itself, but the role it could play in impacting stability in the region ... Its No. 1 interest is in preserving the existing balance of power. As such, it cannot afford to lose North Korea, even though the cost of keeping it is increasingly high.”

But as economic interdependence between South Korea and China increases with both continually expanding areas of bilateral cooperation, some experts say that China’s position concerning North Korea could change.

“China’s stance will gradually change as time passes by. It seeks to expand economic exchanges through the bilateral free trade pact with South Korea and hopes to secure a stronger diplomatic leadership commensurate with its economic power,” said a security expert at a public institute, declining to be named, citing media policy.

“Should the North become a variable that gets in the way of its advancement on the global stage, China could rethink or readjust its policy in line with its national interests.”

In Chinese academia, there has already been talk of China’s strategic decision over the impoverished state. Some scholars have said that it would be better for China to see a unified Korea rather than getting constantly embroiled in tough diplomatic games over its unstable ally.

Hwang of Georgetown University said, however, that such ideas may not be a majority view that can form a wider consensus within the country.

“These are preferences, not interests. Interests will always trump preferences. I also do not believe that the preference for a unified Korea is a majority view in Beijing. Once it becomes so, then perhaps Chinese interests may also change,” she said.

Some experts noted that China’s recent pressure on the North came as it seeks to expand increasing cooperation with the U.S.

“For China, the U.S. is a subject with which it should cooperate on global issues although it has also had conflicts with it. As the U.S. has a strong stance, it might have sought to respond to that while sending a warning against additional provocations by the North,” said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Attention is now being paid to how China will react should the North carry out another nuclear test. After the U.N. condemnation over its rocket launch, the North has hinted at a possible nuclear test following the first in 2006 and the second in 2009.

Whatever action it may choose, its decision could help determine whether China would move toward any policy shift, observers said.

By Song Sang-ho (