China Still Playing a Double Game in Korea

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS April 21, 2017

There is still time for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Pyongyang has not (yet) conducted another nuclear test, as was feared might happen during the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung last weekend. And the failed missile test that was conducted was not of an ICBM that could reach America. The development of a nuclear weapon that can strike the United States is an absolute red line that would justify pre-emptive military action by Washington. The best route to a peaceful settlement runs through the People's Republic of China (PRC). There were high hopes movement along that path had started in the wake of the summit between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping on April 7. Yet, reports that Beijing was ready to act with determination to corral its client state were overly optimistic.

Though much has been made of China halting imports of coal from North Korea since mid-February, overall trade between the two countries has actually increased in 2017. When asked about this at a press briefing on April 13, a spokesman for the PRC Foreign Ministry replied, "As you know, China and the DPRK are neighbors with traditional friendly ties, including normal trade activities. As long as it is in line with the requirement of UN Security Council resolutions, normal relations, including trade relations, between China and the DPRK are not to be blamed." Beijing has indicated it will not go beyond UN Security Council resolutions in terms of sanctions on Pyongyang. This is a disingenuous posture given China's ability to water down such resolutions and perhaps even conspire with Russia to veto resolutions; letting Beijing off the hook even if it took an anti-DRPK stand in terms of rhetoric.

Beijing is still playing a double game, seeking concessions from Washington without doing anything that would jeopardize the Kim Jong Un regime. The Chinese were delighted when President Trump pulled back from his campaign pledge to declare Beijing a currency manipulator despite the fact that it sets the value of the Yuan by government fiat on the basis of its own interests. On Easter Sunday, Trump tweeted, "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!" However, if his intent was to hold such a determination over Xi's head----which would justify broad countervailing trade action by the U.S. ---- he undermined the effort by also claiming elsewhere that Beijing has ceased manipulating its currency! That would seem to put an end to the issue, well before China had taken any meaningful action on North Korea.

Having gotten one major concession for free, Beijing is asking for more. In an April 18 op-ed in Global Times, Li Haidong, a professor with the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, claimed that President Trump's change of policy on currency was part of a realization that "US domestic economic problems cannot be attributed to the trade imbalance between the US and China." This statement goes well beyond what Trump has said. It is an attempt to lock the American leader into a position from which he cannot retreat. Li then goes on to raise what the Chinese have always offered as the way to reduce the trade deficit, "If the US relaxes its restrictions on the export of high-tech products to China, the Sino-US trade pattern will be greatly improved." The next day, a Foreign Ministry spokesman made the same argument almost word for word, adding that lifting restrictions on strategic items could lessen the trade deficit by a third.

The trade restrictions in question are those used to keep military and "dual use" technology out of Beijing's hands, technology that would be used to create new weapons to aim at the United States. Beijing has a massive program of human and cyber espionage aimed at stealing these secrets, but it would be easier to simply buy them. As Vladimir Lenin (whose autocratic spirit animates the Chinese Communist Party) famously put it, "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." And many greedy merchants would do so if the government did not stop them.

Beijing does not, however, want the U.S. to supply high-tech weapons to its Asian allies. On April 14, the PRC Foreign Ministry again called on the U.S. to halt deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in the Republic of Korea (ROK) to counter the missile threat from North Korea. A ministry spokesman stated,

The deployment of THAAD by the US and the ROK in the ROK is not conducive to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula nor peace and stability on the Peninsula. It seriously undermines the strategic and security interests of China and other countries in the region and breaks the strategic balance of the region.

It is obvious to all that since the US and the ROK decided to deploy THAAD, the situation on the Peninsula, instead of cooling down, has become more intense; the ROK, instead of becoming more secure, has been faced with greater threat and challenge.

            This was followed by an editorial in Global Times on April 19 claiming that South Korea was "not an innocent victim" in the nuclear crisis, not only because of the THAAD deployment but because it is "always demanding more US pressure on the North, [and] has done little to promote the Washington-Pyongyang detente." The Communist Party publication demanded that Seoul "put more efforts into de-escalating tensions." On his trip to South Korea last week, Vice President Mike Pence assured his audience that THAAD will be deployed along with other measures to defend America's ally. China's claim that it is defensive measures, not the offensive threats of nuclear devastation from Pyongyang, that have raised tensions calls into question how sincere Beijing is about reining in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The day before, an op-ed in the government newspaper People's Daily by Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow  with the Center of  China-American Defense Relations at the Academy of Military  Science, argued that the U.S. has to negotiate directly with North Korea to end the crisis. The basis for talks would be a proposal from Beijing, "As a first  step, the DPRK freezes its  nuclear  program if, in exchange, the US halts its military  exercises with the ROK." The catch is that Pyongyang only has to freeze its program, not end it; so it will remain hanging over the heads of not only South Korea but also Japan and potentially the U.S. And in the face of that continued threat, the U.S. backs off its involvement with Seoul, raising questions about its reliability as an ally. It's a win-win outcome; for Beijing and Pyongyang. If this is China's idea of cooperation, then diplomacy has not moved even a foot forward. But then the Chinese may not yet truly believe that President Trump is different from President Barack Obama. Zhou closes his op-ed by asking,

"If the US can come to agreements with Cuba and Iran, why can't it  do so  with the  DPRK?"

After his summit with President Xi, President Trump restated his position that, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will." The key is convincing Beijing that the costs of inaction will be greater than the costs of taking action against Pyongyang. At the time of the Trump-Xi summit, which coincided with the U.S. missile strike on Syria, Beijing seemed to have gotten this message. However, Chinese leaders seem to have recovered their nerve, pushing the idea in official statements and the media that the damage North Korea could inflict in a war should deter any military action by Washington. Yet, Beijing's rulers know that North Korea cannot survive an escalating conflict. The U.S. could have three carrier groups in the Sea of Japan by mid-May. The prospect of its buffer state becoming a shattered state as America reconfirms its preeminence in Asia is China's worst nightmare. Beijing will act in its own interests to avoid such an outcome if the U.S. threat is credible. To make the threat credible, the U.S. must commit the resources and show the resolve to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program by force if need be.

As Frederick the Great put it, "Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments." Fortunately, the U.S. can still deploy a philharmonic orchestra whose capability to masterfully perform the grandest martial symphonies should command the attention and respect of the Chinese leadership.

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William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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