US Vice President Joseph Biden’s tour of Northeast Asia could not be timelier, as the region has turned into something of a hornet’s nest. China’s recent declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is just the latest twist to trends years in the making that are dangerous and disturbing: sparring between Tokyo and Beijing over disputed islands; bad blood between Tokyo and Seoul over historical issues and disputed rocks; provocations by Pyongyang and war games by US-ROK forces; and signs of strain between allies Pyongyang and Beijing.
These trends raise a number of disturbing questions. Could Japan and China go to war over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and how would the US respond? Can Japan and South Korea ever settle their historical grievances, or is the US dream of a trilateral security structure delusional? Is Kim Jong Un risk tolerant enough to trigger a war and how would China respond to a “contingency” in Korea? Has Beijing, under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, made a fundamental shift to seeing North Korea as a liability rather than an asset?
Tensions always get more attention than does getting along, but US policymakers would be remiss to see only these fissures. Often overlooked in the flurry of Asia’s maritime disputes and history wars is one of the most important developments of 2013: the blossoming “friendship” between Seoul and Beijing. It began in January, when President-elect Park Geun-hye and President-select Xi Jinping wasted no time exchanging envoys to affirm their intentions to rebuild the relationship after the nadir reached by the end of their predecessors’ terms. Next, then-ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff General Jung Seung-jo landed at Beijing airport in a C-130 transport plane to meet his counterpart, General Fang Fenghui—the first such meeting in over five years. But the real splash came in late June when President Park held a summit with President Xi, delivered a speech in her self-taught Mandarin Chinese at Tsinghua University, and promoted South Korean investment at the new business hub in the ancient central China city of Xi’an. Park struck a deep chord with the Chinese public as her autobiography became a national bestseller, and Beijing accepted her proposal to build a statue of Korean patriot Ahn Jung-geun at the site where he assassinated Japanese official Ito Hirobumi in 1909. Her summit also blew still stronger winds behind the sails of negotiations on a China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, which are on track to reach completion next year.
The blossoming friendship between South Korea and China, in other words, is taking place across political, economic, military and cultural dimensions. Not since before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 has the relationship been this strong, and the kerfuffle over the overlap between China’s new ADIZ and Korea’s old ADIZ should not distract too much attention from the deeper strategic shift taking shape. It is equally important not to assume Beijing applies zero-sum thinking to the Korean peninsula—quite the contrary. The improved ties with Seoul do not demonstrate a shift in policy toward Pyongyang. If the Obama administration misreads these developments, and fails to develop a proactive response, the situation in Korea will continue to drift away from US influence and in directions divergent to its interests.
The Meaning of Friendship
The warming ties with Seoul are part of a broader initiative in Chinese foreign policy, one easily lost in the fog of stories about rising tensions in East Asia—namely, the return of friendship.
We can get a better sense of this new approach through the writings of Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and one of China’s most influential strategic thinkers. Yan writes in his new book, Inertia of History: China and the World in the Next Ten Years, that the time has come for Beijing to abandon its policy of avoiding alliances. A realist in his view of international relations, Yan sees China and the United States locked in a struggle for hegemony as a new “great power” emerges to challenge the predominance, at least in East Asia, of the world’s sole superpower. He has warned that it is more prudent for the two countries to strive for “peaceful competition,” rather than “fake friendship.” But whereas it is unrealistic for Beijing to seek a friendly relationship with Washington, it is incumbent on China to start thinking about building friendships—a euphemism for allies—elsewhere. Yan points out that the US has security alliances with 42 countries, whereas China only has one mutual defense treaty ally (the DPRK) and argues that it is time for Beijing to start catching up. In his book, Yan asserts that China could add about 20 allies in the next ten years.
One of the targets in Yan’s sites for a new “friend” to Beijing is South Korea. He writes:
Japan and South Korea are two countries with a security conflict between them, yet they both have alliances with the US. China can learn from this model by developing relations with South Korea, as well as Thailand, into allies that we share with the US. Although South Korea and Thailand are both US allies, these two countries have significant political needs from China. If China and South Korea become allies, China can maintain neutrality in the conflict between North and South Korea—in the same way that the US neutral policy between Korea and Japan is based on the US military alliances with both countries.
Yan is a bold thinker, but these should not be mistaken as the idle thoughts of a scholar locked in an ivory tower. On the very same day in late October that Yan explained his idea of China-South Korea “friendship” to a group of experts brought over from Seoul by the East Asia Foundation, President Xi was explaining his ideas about “diplomatic work on neighboring countries” at a conference attended by the full Politburo Standing Committee. The repeated phrase of Xi’s speech was the need for “friendly relations”:
The strategic goal of China’s diplomacy with neighboring countries is to serve the cause of national rejuvenation, for which China must consolidate its friendly relations with neighboring countries… We must strive to make our neighbors more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.
Xi emphasized that “the basic tenet of diplomacy with neighbors is to treat them as friends and partners, to make them feel safe and to help them develop.”
Talking about “friendship” in a diplomatic context might seem innocuous—if not hypocritical given Beijing’s recent challenge to the status quo by announcing its ADIZ. But Xi’s speech, like Yan Xuetong’s strategy, takes on a different aspect in light of modern Chinese history. Ever since British ships arrived in 1839 to crush China in the first Opium War, leaders in Beijing have framed foreign relations as the struggle against an enemy—first the British and the West, then the Japanese, and then the Americans. Mao Zedong took this fixation on an enemy to its extreme in the 1960s when Beijing pitted itself against both of the world’s superpowers: the US and USSR. But then along came Deng Xiaoping, who dramatically reversed China’s grand strategy.
The essence of Deng’s new approach was to transcend the friend/enemy dichotomy. In a sense, he depoliticized international politics. Instead of courting allies and deterring adversaries, Deng made economic development the basis of foreign policy. He and his successors steadily patched up China’s hostile relationships, but at the same time avoided forming alliances. Instead, they created a vast network of “business-like” partnerships around the world that has been conducive to China’s extraordinary economic rise. The strategy has served China well for the last 30 years as has found its footing in the modern world system. But now, Yan argues, President Xi might be ushering in a new era—the return of friendship. And one of the more ambitious objects of Beijing’s new friend offensive would appear to be Seoul.
A Falling Out with Pyongyang?
The strengthening of Chinese ties to South Korea takes on added significance in light of what has been widely perceived as a downgrading in the PRC-DPRK relationship. As Beijing and Seoul have been drawing closer, Beijing and Pyongyang seem to be drifting further apart. Indeed, Xi’s embrace of Park on her visit is one data point in a series of developments that have led many observers to imagine a policy shift in Beijing, that Beijing had lost its patience with its errant North Korean neighbor, that Xi would not coddle Kim Jong Un the way Hu Jintao put up with Kim’s father. Indeed, almost every month this year, there seemed to appear a new sign that Chinese “teeth” were biting the North Korean “lips.”
2013 Timeline of Chinese Actions
|China signs off on UN Security Council Resolution 2087 that “slammed” the DPRK’s “regrettable” satellite launch.
|A prominent Party intellectual argues in a Financial Times op-ed that “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
|Beijing approves UNSC Resolution 2094 condemning North Korea’s nuclear test and imposing more sanctions.
|Xi Jinping seemingly delivers a sharp message to Pyongyang when he tells the Boao Forum, “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”
|The Bank of China announces closing the account of the DPRK’s official Foreign Trade Bank, an unusual financial sanction because the FTB was not subject to UN mandated sanctions, although it had been recently added to US Treasury’s list of sanctioned entities.
|Park Geun-hye receives red carpet treatment on her state visit to Beijing despite the fact that Xi had not yet met with his own ally, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
|Chinese border agents seemingly tighten inspections on shipments into the DPRK, as US officials assert that China shares a “unity of view, a singleness of purpose” in implementing sanctions.
|Beijing hosts an unofficial bilateral dialogue with a South Korean delegation on how to achieve denuclearization of the Peninsula, a topic usually taboo given the sensitivities of its ally.
|China’s Ministry of Commerce releases a detailed list of sanctioned items banned from export to the DPRK in an unprecedented gesture of transparency.
|China is reported to be holding up a shipment of Iranian petroleum to be refined and sent on to North Korea.
|China’s foreign minister echoes Xi’s stern message when he says of Korea, “the Chinese side absolutely will not permit creating disorder and incidents at our own doorstep, and absolutely will not accept China’s development process once again being interfered with and interrupted.”
It is understandable in light of this calendar of Sino-North Korean tensions that President Obama and his advisors might come to believe a policy shift was underway in Beijing. But Xi’s more aggressive moves toward Pyongyang were as much a response to Kim Jong Un’s lack of fealty as anything else—understandable given Kim’s need to establish himself as new supreme leader and project a strong, independent image both domestically and internationally.
President Xi’s annoyance with Marshal Kim should not be mistaken for a change in China’s strategic calculus. In the same speech this spring where Xi obliquely chastised Pyongyang for heightening tensions, for example, he came back to the importance of dialogue and negotiation—not pressure and sanctions—as the means to resolve disputes.
As for the all the signs of enhanced sanctions enforcement, except for the case of closing the North Korean Foreign Trade Bank account, China appears to be continuing its established policy of implementing the minimal set of sanctions based on UN Security Council guidelines. Meanwhile, cross-border commerce, investment, and capacity building between the PRC and DPRK steam ahead. Officially reported trade volume through September reached $4.49 billion, 4.4 percent higher than in 2012. China is helping North Korea develop its basic energy and transportation infrastructure, and investment in the North’s “highly risky, but also highly profitable” economy—especially mining—continues unabated.
It was of course significant that Xi met Park before Kim, but the sequencing might owe more to the fact that Kim was in no rush to pay respects to Beijing while Park was. Notably, the North Korean leader did dispatch his personal envoy, Choe Ryong Hae, at the eleventh hour to make the rounds in Beijing and get a photo shaking hands with Xi prior to Park’s visit. That trip was a kind of turning point, marking the resumption of regular high-level dialogue, with chief nuclear envoys making a pair of reciprocal visits to each other’s capitals. The most symbolically loaded visit was by Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, who met with Kim Jong Un on his trip to Pyongyang to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice. Li was born in 1950, and his first name, Yuanchao, is a homophone for “Defend Korea,” in honor of the “just war” being fought at the time.
In short, it would be rash to exaggerate the tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang, contrast them with the improvements between Beijing and Seoul, and conclude China has made a policy shift from North to South, from stability to denuclearization, and from the Six Party Talks to sanctions. As Chinese officials and foreign policy experts explain ad nauseam, Beijing’s approach to the DPRK is unchanged. The policy is to pursue denuclearization and peace and stability of the Korean peninsula through dialogue and negotiations. Beijing still sees non-coercive diplomacy as the only way to solve the nuclear problem and would not do anything to threaten North Korea’s stability in efforts to encourage denuclearization.
On the North-South question, what China wants is “friendship” with both Koreas. The “great friendship with North Korea,” as Xi referred to it in a 2010 speech to Chinese Korean War veterans, is likely to continue into the Xi-Kim era, although it has gotten off to a bumpy start. At the same time, a new friendship with South Korea is a priority, and despite the recent turbulence over the ADIZ issue, political will appears to be strong in both Beijing and Seoul to continue improving the relationship. Considering that Xi has added a measure of toughness to what remains at its core an engagement strategy towards the DPRK, and given that Park is pivoting from her predecessor’s hardline policy back toward inter-Korean engagement, Beijing and Seoul may be coming into alignment in their North Korea policies as well, making cooperation easier.
So what can we expect from the year to come, and what are the implications for the United States?
A defining feature of the Obama administration’s North Korea policy is its reliance on China to be the enforcement mechanism. If only China would toughen its posture toward Pyongyang, then North Korea could be forced back down the road to denuclearization—so the logic goes. Although the administration had one go at preliminary bilateral negotiations in the second half of 2011, the implosion of the resulting “Leap Day Deal” just weeks after its announcement reinforced its preference to stay as disengaged as possible. The language of US government officials defines talking to Pyongyang as appeasement (“no reward for bad behavior”), a waste of resources (“no buying the same horse twice”), and a waste of time (“no talks for talks’ sake”).
Contrary to wishful thinking that Beijing has undergone a sea change and is now putting the squeeze on Pyongyang, in fact, the gap between China’s approach and that of the United States remains a chasm. After almost every seemingly “tougher” measure taken this year, Beijing has insisted that sanctions are not a solution, or has called on the United States in particular to return to talks with Pyongyang. Yet these persistent calls for resuming dialogue have fallen on deaf ears.
The gap between China and the US is not just about the means—sanctions versus engagement. At a more fundamental level, most Chinese see validity in North Korea’s claim that it is threatened by the US, and do not think denuclearization can occur until Washington addresses Pyongyang’s security concerns. But the Chinese are also aware of the mainstream American view that the North manufactures a sense of external threat in order to maintain power over an isolated populace, and that the claim of a “hostile policy” by the US is a figment of paranoid Korean imagination. Chinese diplomacy, however, is proving unable to bridge that gap.
In the absence of a resumption of dialogue—whether bilaterally with the US or multilaterally in the Six Party Talks—it seems only a matter of time before North Korea conducts further tests of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Beijing has been bracing for the “possibility” of a fourth nuclear test since at least July, when none other than General Fang Fenghui brought the subject up at a press conference held jointly with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey in Beijing.
On the assumption that diplomacy will continue to go nowhere, the question then becomes how is Beijing likely to respond to further “provocations” by Pyongyang such as another round of rocket and nuclear tests. The answer will likely depend on three factors.
First, if the leadership in Pyongyang continues to seek improved ties with China, as it has since the spring, then President Xi will be less likely to use the test as an opportunity to express his displeasure with Kim. A key metric to watch for is whether there is progress in arranging a Kim Jong Un visit to Beijing next year, which would symbolize the continuation of a close relationship under the two new leaders. In addition, if North Korea continues to show signs of a gradual “reform and opening-up” of its economy, China will not want to jeopardize that positive development by overdoing financial or economic sanctions.
Second, if China determines that the Obama administration was never serious about sitting down with the North Koreans, Beijing’s outrage at more North Korean tests will be less pronounced. At some point Xi will give up trying to convince President Obama to put some political capital into going back to the table with Pyongyang. Everyone will start looking past this administration and start planning for the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Finally, coming back to the original topic, if Sino-South Korean relations stabilize after the ADIZ controversy passes and then continue to strengthen, while inter-Korean relations gradually improve, then Beijing would be even less inclined to meet US demands for a tough reaction to another round of tests. Instead, China is likely to keep the focus on enhanced economic development cooperation on the peninsula, as it works toward the ultimate goal of having “friends” on both sides of the 38th parallel.
The real challenge to the budding PRC-ROK “friendship” would arise in the case of renewed direct hostilities between the two Koreas of the kind witnessed in 2010. President Park will look to Beijing for a new sense of solidarity, Pyongyang will have the usual expectations of its great power ally, and Xi Jinping will find himself in the middle. But if Yan Xuetong’s ideas are any guide, that’s where China is headed as it regains its place of centrality in East Asia.
 Yan Xuetong, 历史的惯性 (Inertia of History), 199.
 Xi stated, “With growing interaction among countries, it is inevitable that they encounter frictions here and there. What is important is that they should resolve differences through dialogue, consultation and peaceful negotiations in the larger interest of the sound growth of their relations.”
 Kim Kye-gwan visited Beijing in June and September; Wu Dawei traveled to Pyongyang in August and November.