CAMBRIDGE, England — Although you could argue that the current U.S. leadership caused the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, it is not really an American crisis. Whatever weapons North Korea has, biological, chemical or nuclear, it does not yet have the means of delivering them to the United States. It does, however, have missiles that can reach major cities in South Korea, Japan, Russia and China.
Clearly Japan and South Korea, and probably Russia, do not have enough influence over Pyongyang to be able to affect its weapons policy. But China does. It is, then, understandable that Japan, South Korea and Russia would like the U.S. to take the lead in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons ambitions. It is not so obvious why China is also taking that line.
North Korea is increasingly dependent on China for food and energy. It would be happy to be more dependent, but China has apparently refused to make up for the shortfalls caused by the halting of fuel-oil shipments by the Korean Economic Development Organization at the insistence of the U.S. The same applies to the reduction of food aid from all donors. Chinese President Jiang Zemin apparently even refused to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to discuss the situation when Kim requested a meeting.
China could have been taking a much more prominent position in managing the crisis, but its efforts have been low key and deferential to the U.S. This appears odd, given that taking the initiative would have been consistent with its ambition to be the leading country in Asia. Beijing has already edged into the lead on regional cooperation issues in East Asia. It is keen to become the leader of Asia. So why has it not taken a leadership role in managing the North Korean crisis?
Part of the answer is that, like the U.S., China does not have a well thought-out North Korea policy. All Beijing is sure of is that it does not want North Korea to become a nuclear power. Before the present crisis, Beijing, when pressed, would say it wanted to maintain the status quo. That, however, is no longer an option.
If China threatened to stop the flow of food and fuel it would be in danger of forcing the collapse of the Kim regime and maybe the collapse of the North Korean economy. This, Beijing believes, would lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into China and maybe lead to political instability in the Korean ethnic regions of China’s northeast. Their thinking does not seem to have gone beyond this.
The second part of the answer is that China is in a period of political transition. Hu Jintao took over as secretary of the Chinese Communist Party two months ago, but Jiang continues to be president until March.
Jiang is still calling the shots on foreign policy while he is president; U.S. President George W. Bush and other world leaders call him to discuss the Korean crisis. He makes the calls for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and says he will use his influence in Pyongyang to get the North Korean leaders to talk to the Americans.
Hu has not made any speeches on foreign policy since he became party secretary, and has kept a low profile internationally. He has been very active on domestic issues, but is doing nothing to alienate Jiang in this transition period.
Chinese leaders are aware that after a succession of record harvests they could draw on food stocks to increase food aid to North Korea. They could ship massive amounts of coal to the power stations there and they have the technology to help develop peaceful nuclear-power stations. They are not offering any of these things; indeed, they have made it quite clear that they are not planning to do so.
By taking such a stance they have compromised their leadership role in the region and abdicated some of it to the U.S. They could have argued that this was an Asian crisis and used their influence and power to resolve it. This would have raised their leadership profile, especially relative to Japan, whose North Korea policy doesn’t deserve the label “policy.”
U.S. foreign policy, defense and national-security teams have no meaningful policy on North Korea, either. Name-calling and unsubstantiated assertions do not add up to a policy. North Korean leaders are running rings around them politically while Washington dithers and demonstrates inconsistency in its thinking.
By not stepping into the vacuum left by the U.S., China has not only missed an opportunity to lay a claim to be the regional and world leader it aspires to be, it has also enhanced the Asian presence of the U.S., which is something few people in East Asia want.
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