NEW DELHI – Earlier this month, China voiced its unhappiness with North Korea for firing four Scud missiles into the Sea of Japan. Beijing had suspended all coal imports from its neighbor earlier in February. Pyongyang responded by accusing Beijing of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” This was not the first time North Korea had thumbed its nose at China. However, Beijing was in for a surprise when several Chinese strategic affairs experts went up in arms and demanded that China “abandon” North Korea.
In recent times, neither escalating tensions in Sino-Japanese ties nor uncertainties in Sino-U.S. bilateral relations have been the focus for the Chinese. Instead, public opinion has centered on “Fatty Kim the Third” — as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is unflatteringly called in the unofficial and social media in China — making for a debate fraught with controversy and confusion. To its utter dismay, however, the party-state in Beijing is completely at a loss today in coming to grips with the North Korea problem.
Currently, there are three schools of thought dominating the discourse on Sino-North Korean relations in China’s strategic affairs community. First, there are scholars who uphold the view that North Korea remains ideologically and geopolitically crucial for China, for two reasons. One, by maintaining solid ties with North Korea China will not be alone and isolated in the game the United States, Japan and South Korea are playing in the Korean Peninsula.
Two, with North Korea standing by its side, Beijing will be in a better position to deal with worldwide anti-China feeling. These “support North Korea” proponents believe that North Korea is China’s most valuable strategic asset and its strategic importance for China will become even more crucial in the days ahead. Veteran commentator Zhang Zhikong, a left-leaning intellectual, recently wrote in his popular blog, “Historically, we Chinese have never disregarded the importance of Korea, and today when the Chinese nation is rejuvenating itself, China must not abandon any region which is a part of our traditional sphere of influence.”
Second, there are Chinese who are demanding that Beijing abandon North Korea altogether. These are largely pro-reform, pro-free market right-wing leaning public intellectuals and think tank scholars. This group has particularly been very vocal in advocating the as-yet-unacceptable position (to Beijing) of severing ties, especially following the U.S. announcement to forge ahead with deploying the Terminal High Area Altitude Defense missile defense system in South Korea. These scholars believe that THAAD is aimed not at North Korea, but at China, and they blame Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program for providing an excuse for the deployment.
“The U.S. decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea is a disaster for China and it is time China changes its mindset,” Zhao Lingmin, well-known Chinese political commentator recently observed in his column in the online Financial Times (in Chinese). Such “abandon North Korea” advocates claim that THAAD’s arrival in South Korea reflects China’s foreign policy failure and is a slap in China’s face by the U.S. just before the next month’s Xi-Trump summit. To many, such unusually critical voices are a warning to the top leadership in Beijing that North Korea has hijacked China’s foreign policy agenda.
As a result, members of this camp want Beijing to sever all diplomatic, political, and economic ties with North Korea. They are also dismissive of the “as close as lips to teeth” brotherly ties between the two communist neighbors during the Mao era. “Those were different days. Now China has moved on but North Korea is still stuck in the past,” the argument generally runs. Geopolitically, North Korea has become a “negative equity” for China, they further argue.
Of the three main positions on the North Korean question in China today, the most unpalatable to both the Communist Party and to the central government is the “eliminate” North Korea theory. Its proponents argue, that the CPP has been obviously caught between the “support” and “abandon” Pyongyang camps for years. They claim the prevailing mood in Beijing is now in favor of giving up on North Korea.
Furthermore, with the growing economic interdependence between China and the U.S., Beijing is in no position to provoke Washington over the North Korean nuclear issue. Sooner or later, Beijing must choose whether “abandon” or “eliminate” North Korea, according to this third narrative. The group even dares the CPP leadership when it contends Beijing does not have a choice in the matter anymore.
Interestingly, the left-leaning narrative (members of the “support North Korea” group) ridicules such opinions.
Will Beijing make up its mind on North Korea before the upcoming Sino-U.S. summit? Of course, it is true that the Chinese are not known for making sudden departures from their well-known, well-prepared positions.
However, it’s also true that strong Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping did surprise the world with their off-the-cuff political and diplomatic moves. Remember, President Xi Jinping, too, is believed to be the most powerful CPP leader in decades. The question many are asking in Beijing is whether Xi is strong enough to thumb Beijing’s nose back at North Korea’s supreme leader.
Hemant Adlakha is a professor of Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru Universty. © 2017, the Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.