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China’s Tough Choices

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
June 4, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/CCTV via Reuters TV

Remember all those books and articles about a “power shift” in Asia, or China “eating America’s lunch,” or the relentless advance of Beijing’s soft power?  What a difference a couple of months make.

Here we are, nearly 10 weeks after North Korea torpedoed the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, and perceptions of Chinese foreign policy seem suddenly to be turning upside down.  And with good reason.  China’s strategic environment has deteriorated, not least because of its own choices but especially because of North Korea’s.

As Victor Cha pointedly argues in this interview with, the Chinese have been “weak, clumsy, totally anachronistic in terms of how they’ve dealt with this.“  “The Chinese are supposed to think long term,” Victor adds.  “What they’re doing right now is not long term thinking.”

China offers a rather extraordinary picture these days.

Let’s put aside for a moment China’s arguments against pressuring North Korea.  Beijing has voted to refer North Korean noncompliance with safeguards agreements to the UN Security Council.  And although enforcement has been a challenge, it’s voted for tough sanctions resolutions, such as UNSCR 1718 and UNSCR 1874.  But despite that, China has never really embraced coercion of North Korea.  In fact, the Chinese have been pretty consistent in that view since 2002.  So China’s stance on North Korea may be weak … but it’s hardly unpredictable.

The more interesting spectacle involves the questions that now arise about Chinese foreign policy in East Asia, more generally.

Analysts have been parsing and debating Chinese aspirations for years.  But there’s some consensus, certainly, about three goals.  China has sought, particularly over the last decade, to:

(1) Improve its security environment in East Asia—for example, by embracing closer political and trade relations with America’s allies, not least South Korea.

(2) Enhance China’s image, presenting a less threatening face to the region.

(3) If opportunities arrive, seek benefit from whatever doubts might arise about U.S. credibility and staying power in Asia.

And (4) China has also sought to integrate with Asia and the world—enhancing interdependence, but also increasing others’ dependence on the Chinese economy in ways that might shape their choices.

That fourth goal remains largely on track as China’s sheer economic weight in Asia and the world increase.  But the first three goals, more political and strategic in nature, are under direct threat as a result of North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan.

Start with China’s improved security environment. Beijing’s strategic gains of the last decade are, in some areas, coming undone:  In just the past few weeks, Washington and Seoul have begun expanding defense coordination, and will soon begin running drills and holding additional exercises. And Washington and Tokyo moved forward on relocating a U.S. airbase in Okinawa after eight months of stasis.  Then there are the various developments that preceded North Korea’s attack.  Indonesia and Vietnam have drawn closer to the United States.  U.S.-Malaysian relations have improved significantly.  And despite tensions with the Obama administration, the United States now holds more military exercises with India than any other country in the world.  And New Delhi is forging deeper ties in East Asia.  Put simply, the United States has strategic opportunities, especially with Seoul, that haven’t existed for more than a decade.

Then there’s China’s effort to enhance its image.  China is increasingly seen in South Korea (and elsewhere) as an enabler of North Korean provocations.  It’s been unwilling to strongarm Pyongyang.  It failed to restrain the North from such a provocative act.  It wasn’t able to forestall earlier nuclear and missile tests, either.  All of these failures have raised questions about Chinese intentions, as well as Chinese capacity.  What’s more, despite a more accommodating line toward Tokyo from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, China has lately seemed more assertive with Japan, as well—for example by increasing its deployments to the East China Sea.

Indeed, Beijing is strikingly isolated on the North Korea issue.  Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo are broadly aligned.  Moscow is sending a technical team to Seoul to follow up on the results of a multinational investigation of the sinking.  And so among the five countries most immediately affected by North Korean behavior—the other parties to the Six Party Talks—China stands increasingly alone.

Finally, there’s the issue of American staying power in Asia:

The November 2009 Joint Statement between presidents Obama and Hu Jintao included this significant line:  “China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”  It’s the sort of statement that some believed China would find hard to make.  Yet there’s little question, too, that China has sought to advance its own relative strength in East Asia.  So it’s significant that the United States is now expanding alliance coordination—and may yet develop new opportunities for trilateral coordination with Seoul and Tokyo.  In short, America’s postwar role as security guarantor in Northeast Asia seems newly robust, vital, and enduring.

I don’t want to overstate this.  Economic and political realities will continue to dictate a growing Chinese role across East Asia.  And as I’ve argued here and here, China is at the center of all sorts of regional integration efforts in East Asia. But in the political and security realm, Chinese gains of recent years are in some jeopardy.

I’ll be watching five relationships:

1.  China-South Korea.  For 20 years, China has sought to diversify its portfolio on the Korean Peninsula by moving beyond Pyongyang and placing some serious economic (and political) bets on Seoul.  But it would be hard to overstate just how gobsmacked many South Koreans are by Chinese behavior since the Cheonan sank.

2.  China-North Korea.  China continues to proclaim its abiding desire for peace and stability on the Peninsula.  But if it wasn’t clear before, it should now be crystal clear that Pyongyang threatens that cherished Chinese goal.  Yet many in China cling to the notion that U.S. and South Korean “failures” have cornered the North.  How long will such views persist?  And can they continue to persist if North Korea undertakes additional provocations?

3.  U.S.-South Korea.  New possibilities are emerging for coordination, especially on defense.  So after a decade of tension under two prior administrations in Seoul, Korean strategists are rethinking things like a plan to transfer wartime operational control from the U.S. to South Korea.  And alliance coordination has grown tighter.

4.  U.S.-South Korea-Japan.  Trilateral coordination has long been a challenge, in part because of the difficulty Seoul and Tokyo have faced in overcoming the historical legacy of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula.  But despite political uncertainty in Tokyo, new security pressures, not least from North Korea, could provide new impetus to work more closely.

5.  U.S.-China.  Finally, there’s China’s investment in its relations with Washington.  U.S.-China relations have steadied after a rough patch earlier this year.  But China’s choices affect perceptions.  And Beijing’s choices about the Cheonan have done nothing to bolster confidence, not least in U.S. perceptions of what China is and isn’t capable of on the world stage.

The events of the past 10 weeks will test China’s capacity to achieve many of its strategic goals in Northeast Asia.  And in South Korea, in particular—the U.S. ally with whom Beijing once appeared to be making its greatest gains—twenty years of effort are now at risk.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    China is an East Asian country, so it makes more sense for China to be a local power than the United States, which is thousands of miles away.
    If the author can compare Chinese reaction to the US mild reaction after Israelis shoot people on a Turkish boat, then he will be able to look at the world with a clearer mind.
    Why China needs to sacrifice its geopolitics while the US still opposes to the lift of European arms embargo on China, humiliating China as one of the few countries on the list. (I don’t mean we should spend taxpayers money to buy weapons, but this is another story). The US needs to make a self-criticism before understanding why China reacts the way it did.

  • Posted by davelnaf

    Good article. The author has his facts in order.

    A note to “RousseauChen:” Get some perspective, not to mention facts, on what really happened when the Israelis boarded that Turkish ship. Comparing the sinking of the Cheonan to the Israeli interception of a ship full of militant ‘activists’ who were trying to run a blockade suggests you have been drinking too deeply of the anti-Israeli Kool-aid that is available in plentiful supply to the gullible.

  • Posted by Robert E Kelly

    This is absolutely right, especially on the re-distancing of SK from China. I made precisely the same point at a conference at the Chinese Foreign Affairs University last week. Chinese participants seemed surprised and then balked and stammered something about the ship hitting a rock maybe.

    I wonder just how much of the interaction between academics/think tank-types filters up? It is good for western analysts to cycle through, but if we just talk to westernized academics with no upward flow, then how important is it? The response to the Cheonan has been so inept, I think we must re-consider how socialized into IR China is.

    Someday, NK will mercifully disappear, and if the Chinese look like they purposefully tried to prevent unification for the own short-term geopolitical reasons, they will be damned by history for maintaining the world’s worst tyranny and by South Koreans. Both of these outcomes are starting to happen. We thought they knew this, but now it looks like they don’t…

  • Posted by Josie nguyen

    It doesn’t serve China’s national interest by either pushing too hard or going soft on NK. Let’s face it, the world over will NOT thank China if China were to cooperate with the world to pressure NK to the point of collapsing it and if it were to happen, the route through which is 100% certain to be a violent one. So, why should China sacrifice her national interest for a hostile and ruthlessly thankless world? Not the least for a bunch of useless and loud mouth armchair political pundits. NK still serves some political interest for China and in the case of Cheonan, China can apply some pressure, may even some pain on NK, but eventually things will blow over, people’s perception of China’s influence over NK may change for the worse, but nobody really knows what exactly that influence is, except for a few folks in the CCP’s polibureau. By not revealing what exactly it is, it actually is a smart strategic move; by not wasting your political equity, especially strategic political equity for some nebulous international goodwill.

  • Posted by Zach Alsgaard

    I think it’s obvious even from our scarce western media coverage that the leadership structure in North Korea is rapidly falling apart. My guess is that Kim Jong-il went to China mostly for his own protection against his formidable military leadership. As crazy as Kim Jong-il is made out to be, I somewhat doubt he was directly responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. NK is already suffering economically and the UN’s response has been very predictable so far – I can’t imagine Jong-il would consider sinking a ship during a time when his dynasty is at risk of being dislodged from power. It really seems like Jong-il has been forced into a fight for his own life as evidenced by the emergency Parliament meeting that took place earlier today. The article also mentions the death of Ri Je-gang, the 80-year-old leader who was working to help Jong-il’s son’s transition into power. The official statement is that Ri died in a car accident last Wednesday. Even if that’s the truth, I bet that sent a clear message to Jong-il that his dynasty is under fire. NK is in hot water now, but it’s nothing compared to what could happen if their military takes over. (which begs the question – who is truly in control of NK’s military leadership???)

    I also can’t help but wonder how this situation would be different if it had been a Japanese ship that was sunk..?

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    I am always amazed by the prediction that North Korea, Cuba or Iran are falling apart… Lots predicted that China would become six republics after the death of Deng Xiaoping. It simply did not happen…

    I guess the West needs to change its traditional attitudes (it has changed quite a bit, but not enough). Just think, the US spy planes and vessels keep watching China near the Chinese shore. Should Chinese get angry about this? Of course. What Americans would think if Chinese military planes fly near the high sea near Florida, California and New York to do surveillance?
    Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, said Confucius.

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