With tensions extremely high over the Korean Peninsula and around the region, all eyes are trained on what the North Korean leadership is doing. However, as people are debating how we got where we are and how we can get out, China is repeatedly mentioned as the country that can and should play a special role in solving the problem.
As American media frequently reiterates, China provides “fifty percent of the food and eighty percent of the fuel” that Pyongyang needs, and is fundamentally important for “the survival of North Korea’s regime.” And, as China holds the key to the solution and, to a greater extent the situation over the Korean Peninsula, it stops short of doing the right thing by totally cutting assistance to North Korea. This is because it fears the flood of millions of refugees into China once the domestic situation becomes chaotic; and secondly and more importantly, China just does not want to see the collapse of North Korea’s regime and the peninsula to be united on the South’s terms, in which case China would lose its strategic buffer zone and the US military would be deployed across China’s border. So, according to this kind of rhetoric in a general sense, it is China’s selfishness to blame for the current crisis and more broadly, the instability in the region.
On China’s part, officials and scholars have been saying over the years that China has only limited leverage and influence over North Korea, and oftentimes it’s not what China wants, but whether North Korea listens. From the very beginning, China’s position has been against the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is absolutely sincere to anyone who has a clear understanding of China’s interest and rational calculation of the regional situation. But the fact is that North Korea, independent and isolated as it is, has its own ways of seeing the world and its own deep concerns that can’t be easily relieved. That being said, its leader wants to talk with the US so desperately that Dennis Rodman received excellent hospitality and was treated as a state guest by the leader himself in front of his own people. It is safe to say that North Korea cares less about China than about the US and, on the question of who holds the key to the problem, they may have a different answer.
Now, if we turn back to the blame on China, the logic can be summarized like this: if China cuts assistance to North Korea, what follows will either be Pyongyang caving in and behaving like a good boy by stopping its nuclear and missile tests because it cannot live without food and fuel, or the country will go on challenging the outside world regardless of the suffering of its citizens and then we will see an upheaval of starving people topple the political system. The Korean Peninsula will then unite under the ROK and peace will be permanently achieved. So, only if China has the mercy to lay down the first domino, the happy ending will come.
However, in reality, things could be much worse and the situation could turn disastrous before it gets better. Given the DPRK’s existence for more than six decades, who can confidently tell how weak or how strong it is? What will be their response to further pressure from the international community? How big is the chance of a lasting civil war on the peninsula with the North having such a big military? Yes, this time China may not be involved, but who knows what kind of humanitarian disaster people in that country will suffer from, and how many people will die? And how about nuclear proliferation, which is so dangerous for the region and the world? Who can be sure that those nuclear materials will stay in safe hands? Taking all of this into account, do you still believe that rosy picture you were talking about? And, keep in mind in different scenarios, China will not be the regional country that suffers the most.
So, it is not that China prevents a “happy ending” from happening, but rather it is that China knows better how complicated things are and treats caution as a must. There is no need for China to hide that it has its own interest and preference, as every country in the world does. But, while pursuing its own interests, China also has regional stability in mind, because what China wants is a peaceful neighborhood, which is critical for the country to be able to focus on its own development. Hence we heard the latest warning from the Chinese president against chaos in the region.
Put any country in China’s shoes; what would it do? America has a way less complicated situation vis-à-vis its neighbors to the south, yet we still see don’t US policies toward these countries as single-dimensional, sometimes with confrontational postures. Idealistic slogans do not stop America from taking harsh and realistic measures along its border.
To work towards the best solution possible, China always wants to play a positive role. Other countries may not have as huge a stake as China does in the security of the region but, for them, there are definitely things that can be done to help solve the problem, rather than irresponsibly pointing a finger at China. At this critical juncture, seeking positive cooperation to deal with the crisis is what responsible stakeholders should be doing.
Wang Wenfeng is an Associate Professor at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.