What Will China's Next Move on North Korea Be?

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From left: Liu Jin / AFP / Getty Images; STR / AFP / Getty Images

Smoke was still billowing from Yeonpyeong, the South Korean island that endured a barrage of North Korean artillery fire on Nov. 23, when China's state-run network CCTV led its news program with the conflagration on the Korean peninsula. A natural move, it would seem, given that it was one of the worst border conflicts between the two Koreas in half a century, in which at least two South Korean marines died. But even though the video footage appeared to clearly show North Korea initiating the attack on Yeonpyeong, the CCTV newscast took a different stance. Blame was not apportioned to the North. Instead, the program quoted a North Korean official who claimed that it was actually South Korea that had struck first. While a chorus of nations quickly condemned North Korea for its belligerence, China, as usual, chose to dissemble.

The rest of the world may consider North Korea the ultimate rogue state, but China has a long and close connection with its hermit neighbor. After all, during the Korean War, Beijing sent wave after wave of People's Liberation Army soldiers to fight on the North's behalf. Chairman Mao Zedong famously called the relationship between the communist bedfellows as close "as lips and teeth." Even as North Korea's intransigence and unpredictability has grown, China has hesitated to criticize its isolated ally too harshly. The reasoning is simple: not only do the countries share a historical ideological bond, but Beijing wants to avoid a collapse of the North Korean regime lest a deluge of refugees flood over into northeastern China. It's also an important cushion between China and a major U.S. military ally, South Korea. In fact, relations between Pyongyang and its one and only ally are so close that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il — hardly a world traveler — has visited China twice this year.

But Beijing's quiescent North Korea policy raises concerns that China is not willing to engage in regional affairs on a level commensurate with its rising-power status. In the wake of the Yeonpyeong attack, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who once served in China as a diplomat, said what many other nations have surely been thinking: "I believe it's important now for China to bring all of its influence to bear on North Korea." The island artillery fire comes just days after an American academic visited a North Korean facility, where he said he saw more than a thousand centrifuges used for enriching uranium — a key step in eventually developing nuclear weapons. "This is a huge test for Chinese diplomacy," says John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, who studies Chinese–North Korean relations. "China needs to move quickly. It needs to find ways to acknowledge the severity of the situation and then do whatever it can to turn the focus back to dialogue and negotiation."

For its part, China says it's doing just that. On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry again called for a resumption of the six-party talks that were aimed at dissuading North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons. But the dialogue between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. broke down two years ago when Pyongyang left the table and announced that it would work on nuclear enrichment. Washington says it won't rejoin the talks until North Korea fulfills some of the earlier vows it made to dismantle its nuclear program. To rekindle talks amid reports of a working North Korean uranium-enrichment facility, a White House official told ABC News, would be "rewarding [North Korea's] bad behavior." The official added, "We need to send a strong signal to the Chinese that they need to stand up to North Korea."

The Chinese contend otherwise, hinting that the Americans' and the South Koreans' rejection of further negotiations is counterproductive. "Washington and Seoul's refusal to come to the table works to North Korea's advantage," says Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Shanghai's Fudan University. "Then the North Koreans can say, The U.S. and South Korea aren't coming, so why should we? Then what can China do to promote peace and stability in the region?"

Calling for six-party talks — dialogue that over the years didn't accomplish much of anything — is one thing. Actively reining in an unruly communist cousin is another. In the same press conference in which the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for a return to the talks, spokesman Hong Lei also referred specifically to the island shelling, saying, "China hopes that the relevant parties will do more to contribute to peace and stability in the region." The implication was clear: China would assume a role of watching the "relevant parties." If this was a moment for regional leadership, Beijing wasn't willing to raise its hand.

Indeed, Beijing's unwillingness to castigate North Korea — or, more to the point, consider cutting back China's considerable economic aid to Pyongyang — stands in marked contrast to the nation's increasingly interventionist foreign policy on other fronts. Although China says its overseas relations are guided by a philosophy of a "peaceful rise," in which Beijing doesn't interfere in other nations' affairs, in recent months the country has taken an increasingly confrontational stance in disputed East Asian waters. Chinese navy boats have arrested Vietnamese fishing crews working in waters claimed by both nations. Separately, after the Japanese coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing-trawler captain who had rammed a Japanese patrol boat in another disputed waterway, Beijing kept tensions on a trigger point by cutting off high-level diplomatic relations and halting the export of the rare-earth minerals Japan needs to manufacture high-tech equipment.

China's muted reaction to another Korean flashpoint, the sinking of a South Korean ship last March, certainly doesn't raise hopes of more vigorous regional peacekeeping from Beijing. For days, while other nations lined up to blame North Korea for the attack, China maintained an uncomfortable silence over the sinking of the patrol ship, which killed 46 sailors. An international inquiry eventually concluded that the Cheonan was indeed sunk by a North Korean torpedo, but Pyongyang still denies any involvement in the attack. As a result, China also refuses to accept the report's claims. When the issue was raised at the U.N. Security Council, China was instrumental in watering down an international condemnation of the assault.

Beijing's reticence to act may be because, for all the closeness between the two nations, Pyongyang doesn't feel overly constrained by its economic patron. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, for instance, contends that it wasn't notified in advance of the Yeonpyeong shelling. "I'm of the school that leverage is overrated," says Yonsei University's Delury. "North Korea will pursue its own strategy and isn't going to be double-checking things with Beijing." But the question still remains: If Pyongyang were to seriously believe that China would pull the plug on its aid to North Korea, wouldn't that have some effect on Kim Jong Il or his son and presumed heir Kim Jong Un? And surely Beijing could use some of its political capital to press the Kims père and fils? (China, of course, argues that stopping food aid could trigger the North Korean regime's disintegration — and the last thing Beijing wants is chaos on its border.)

Meanwhile, Chinese geostrategists are busy putting the island attack in regional perspective — with Chinese characteristics. The White House has already agreed to step up joint naval exercises with the South Koreans. Such military shows of might always irk Beijing, given their proximity to China. As tricky as North Korea is for Beijing, the hermit nation does serve one powerful purpose: a buffer between South Korea, where thousands of American troops are stationed. In Japan, thousands more U.S. soldiers serve on American military bases. Chinese foreign policy wonks contend that the U.S. military presence in East Asia is already a sensitive enough issue for Beijing. Earlier this year, the Chinese blew a gasket when Washington pushed through a $6 billion-plus arms-sale package to Taiwan, an island that Beijing considers a breakaway province. "I can't prove that the Chinese government makes a link between North Korea and American weapons sales to Taiwan," says Fudan University professor Shen. "But I think if the U.S. sells weapons to Taiwan, then it can't expect China to act for Washington's interests on the North Korean issue. Everything is connected." With such geopolitical calculations playing out across East Asia, the Chinese chessboard just got a lot more complicated.