North Korea: A test for China

It is a feature of the modern world that even serious and significant crises are soon overtaken by subsequent news.  A couple of weeks ago, North Korea was in all the headlines, as the world seemed closer to nuclear conflict than at any time since the Cuban crisis in 1962.  But the flares did not go up, the world did not descend into war, and new news – round 1 of the French presidential elections, the calling of a general election in the UK, the EU’s statement on Brexit (see “Brexit:  The EU’s response”, 1.05.17), sadly further terrorist incidents in Europe – combined to push Pyongyang and the bouffant Mr Kim Jong-Un at least temporarily off the front page.

It would be unwise though to relegate the Easter weekend’s scare completely to the history books.  For while it did not teach us anything significant about North Korea, except perhaps that its missile programme is not the finished article quite yet, or even very much about President Trump – whose motto seems ever more to be “speak loudly and carry a small stick” – it does reveal slightly more about China, and the attitude of President Xi.

It is well known that the Chinese character for Crisis contains the two elements Danger and Opportunity.  But China’s approach to the North Korean problem shows very clearly that they see far more of the former than the latter.  That North Korea poses danger for China is not in doubt:  it is unstable and unpredictable, and a miscalculation in Pyongyang could result in any number of unpalatable outcomes for Beijing ranging from a refugee crisis measured in millions on their northern border, to a reunified Korea in the western orbit, to a nuclear war.

So far China’s strategy has been to keep North Korea stable and functioning, in the hope that this will delay the day that it collapses, while meanwhile claiming to others that it has diplomatic leverage over the Kim regime and must be allowed to handle things in its own way.  Leverage, incidentally, that they would probably admit in private is less strong than they would like and which they fervently hope would never be put too much to the test.

Now there is often nothing wrong in diplomacy in delaying the moment of decision.  There are some diplomatic problems that one really can decide to do nothing on and leave for one’s successor.  For both China and the US, resolving the status of Taiwan is one such example – it is widely accepted in private diplomatic circles that Beijing’s One China policy is a polite fiction, or at most a statement of long term ambition, and that meanwhile Taiwan is de facto an independent country (“if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …”), and no doubt at some point in the next 200 years the world community will recognise this.  But meanwhile it is in no-one’s interest (certainly not the US’s or China’s, and possibly not even Taiwan’s) to address the matter right now.

And to date, for both China and the US North Korea looked like a similar case of “do nothing and eventually the issue will resolve itself” – probably with the regime collapsing under the weight of its military expenditure.  Until one factors in that they will, perhaps already do, have the power to deliver a nuclear strike on Japan and may have the power to do so on the USA before very long.

No US president can ignore this and it does change the issue from “play it long” to one of more urgency.

And this is where one learns that China sees only Danger, and not Opportunity.  China is not making use of this understandable (and arguably entirely justified) US anxiety.  One wonders what the US would give in exchange for China to eliminate North Korea’s “nuclear dagger at America’s throat”. Removal of all US forces and bases in South Korea?  Cancellation of the defence pact with Taiwan?  Recognition of the Nine Dash Line in the South China Sea?  Very large sums of money “to help pay for the refugee crisis when the regime fails”?

No-one can say what Trump would agree to. But he is the ideal person for China to try it on with – a man who “likes to deal” and who has (in many people’s view) a somewhat inflated opinion of his skill in doing so.  And after a number of policy failures already in his still young presidency he does have a need to have a “success” over North Korea.

It is true that China has ratcheted up the rhetoric warning North Korea to stay calm and be sensible.  The China Daily newspaper, usually seen as the voice of the Beijing authorities, recently ran an editorial in which it said that Pyongyang had “seriously misread” the situation and were “perilously overestimating their own strength”.  These were, and were meant to be seen as, unusually direct comments and no doubt they have been followed in private with even more blunt warnings.

But  in doing nothing beyond this – or rather, in maintaining its current “play it long” stance – China shows that it has yet to understand that diplomacy means not only knowing when to stand fast but also when to seize the moment, how there are always more ways than just brute strength to achieve what one wants, and how if it waits until it is indisputably the richest, strongest and most powerful nation on earth then it risks wasting years, perhaps even decades when the country could manoeuvre itself into better positions sooner.

There is of course a different and, in a sense, even more concerning possibility, that China is not offering to put direct military or economic pressure on North Korea because it is not confident that the pressure would work.  Xi has almost no personal relationship with Kim and China is well aware that economic sanctions are not a strong weapon against a regime which has proved that it is willing to let its people starve rather than concede.  It would be a huge loss of face for Xi if China extracted concessions from Trump only to find that he could not keep his side of the deal in delivering North Korean acquiescence.

Overall, it is doubtful that China will have a better chance to get what it wants, what it really really wants, out of Washington, and it is deeply revealing of their lack of diplomatic imagination, their lack of confidence in their negotiating strength, or perhaps even both that Beijing is proving so reticent in taking the lead.