Waiting for China
If Beijing really worries about war, why won’t it sit on Kim Jong-un?
Everybody talks a good game of peace, goodwill and other good stuff from the sidelines of the noisy war of words between the United States and North Korea, but none of those sideline warriors wants to be seen doing any of the heavy lifting.
“Once a war really happens,” says Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “the result will be nothing but multiple loss. No one can become a winner.” His government, like governments everywhere, urge restraint, and though none of them are saying so, the only restraint and concessions anyone can reasonably expect will be from the American side. The Chinese have urged the United States to take a hit, come to that, before it strikes back.
But if China is such a peace-loving nation, why can’t or won’t it tell Kim Jong-un to cool his jets? China has the ability to starve North Korea, even its fattened elites, into doing the right thing if it chooses. So why doesn’t it choose, if it’s fretting that the world is living under a threat of extinction?
China wants the United States and South Korea to pay the price of stability, and to make sure it doesn’t have to do it. “Instability generated on the [Korean] peninsula could cascade into China,” says Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and that would make China’s challenge of providing for its own people that much more difficult.”
China wants most of all to avoid upsetting the status quo in Asia, to keep the Korean puninsula divided for strategic reasons and to avoid waves of out-of-control refugees, like those that have threatened to swamp the United States and Europe. China started strengthening its borders a decade ago, building a fence of barbed-wire and razor-wire in that now distant day when such things were imagined to be effective obstacles.
Beijing incurred the wrath of human-rights groups when it promised to send refugees back to North Korea, to discourage the waves, and the International Rescue Committee estimates that 30,000 to 60,000 North Koreans have established residence in China. Some private rescue organizations say the real number is several times that.
Some analysts argue that China is ambivalent about its promise to defend North Korea when boom comes to shove, but that’s hardly reassuring amidst the verbal cannonading between Washington and Pyongyang. Bonnie Glaser of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington says China has tried to persuade North Korea to revoke the clause in its 1961 treaty committing it to come to Pyongyang’s assistance if attacked, and Beijing warned Kim Jong-un last week, when it urged the United States to take the first hit, that if he attacks first he’s on his own.
China, like most Asian nations, puts a premium on “face” — it’s sometimes called “side” in the American South — and takes a dim view of sanctions and other pressure tactics to discourage bad behavior. “They tend to see public measures as humiliating and counterproductive.” This is an Asian version of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous admonition to “walk softly and carry a big stick.” But in the present moment none of that seems to satisfy, and the scary beat goes on.