China's North Korean contradictions
Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms.
The release by WikiLeaks of American diplomatic cables written between 2004 and 2010 contains considerable material on China's policy toward North Korea. The leaks supposedly unveil a Chinese readiness to accept the reunification of Korea in favor of South Korea.
This proposition almost beggars belief because it starkly contradicts China's actions in failing to openly condemn North Korea for its sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, or for the recent artillery attack on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island. Similarly, rather than demand that North Korea stop its brinksmanship, China's leaders have called for emergency consultations involving the United States, Japan, Russia, China, the United Nations, and South Korea. None of these actions suggest a willingness to make the North Korean regime pay the price it deserves for its provocations.
So why doesn't China move more decisively to rein in North Korea? The conventional wisdom is that China doesn't want to lose North Korea as a buffer between it and the US military in South Korea. Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim family dynasty to prevent Korea from reunifying on South Korean terms. Indeed, the controversy in Chinese eyes is not really about Korean reunification - few in Beijing speculate that the endgame will be otherwise - but to what extent reunification can be achieved without damaging China's security concerns.
Every time North Korea acts provocatively - testing nuclear bombs, launching missiles, touting its secretive uranium enrichment facilities, and killing South Korean soldiers and civilians - China comes under diplomatic fire. Its chronic indecisiveness about the North and unwillingness to use its leverage, thus shielding its socialist ally, seems to reveal to the wider world a China obsessed with its own narrow interests.
But these interests are hard to quantify. The volume of China's trade with South Korea is almost 70 times that with the North. Thus, if China truly is the mercantilist power that many in the West claim, it should tilt decisively towards the South.
Moreover, China has no interest in stoking a "new Cold War" in East Asia, so it should be enthusiastic about the cause of denuclearisation and thus play a bigger role in curtailing North Korea's nuclear provocations. The irony is that Chinese dithering has incited Cold War-type concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the US. Indeed, given its lack of confidence in China's readiness and willingness to keep the North in check, South Korea is now seeking even deeper defensive ties with the US, as well as enhancing its political and defense cooperation with Japan. If North Korea fails to restrain itself, and China's approach remains tantamount to coddling a dangerous, nucleararmed state, strategic rivalry across East Asia might revive around a Washington-TokyoSeoul axis vis-à-vis a China-North Korea coalition. Not surprisingly, that prospect offers scant comfort to China.
And yet China seems to turn a blind eye to it all. Unfortunately, China's obsolete ideology plays a key role here. Although China claims that it "normalised relations" with North Korea in 2009, its policies and attitudes toward the North remain mired in a morbid comradeship.
For example, in October, on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (the likely successor to President Hu Jintao) dubbed the conflict a glorious fight against a "US-initiated invasion." A majority of Chinese dislike Kim Jong-il's dynastic Leninist regime. And the two countries have diverged enormously in political, economic, and social terms. Yet China's leaders remain incapable of seeming to abandon the North, no matter how odious its behavior.