With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, there are questions about what China would do if hostilities broke out between North and South Korea. This is a nightmare scenario for Beijing that would place it in a nearly impossible situation.
In the unlikely event that fighting were actually to break out, Beijing could simply try to do nothing. But that would open the door to the Korean Peninsula being dominated by the United States. That idea is wholly unacceptable for the Chinese, not only from a geostrategic point of view, but also from the perspective of a responsible regional power, since North Korea is its client state.
Too aggressively intervening on behalf of North Korea is not really an option for the Chinese either. If Beijing were to help North Korea in a case of open hostilities, that could potentially ruin China’s hard-built image of a peaceful rise. It would also be likely to spark a conflict between China and the United States, and create the impression that China is occupying the Peninsula. That is not the message that China would want to send.
Ultimately, China will do whatever is necessary to prevent hostilities from breaking out. The Chinese need to maintain the status quo to save themselves from answering all these uncomfortable questions. At the end of the day, China will not withdraw from its special relationship with North Korea, including their extensive economic cooperation. This is not because of friendship – it is because of interests.
Beijing could try to balance its relationships with other international players by criticizing North Korea’s behaviour – because they have to – but not too harshly. It would have to try to strike a subtle balance. So far, China has been relatively successful in its balancing act with Pyongyang, but many things are happening outside the bright light of the public sphere. They are certainly actively talking to the Americans behind the scenes, especially since any American military build-up in the region is also a threat to China’s own security (and to Russia’s).
Despite the current rhetoric over the tension on the Korean Peninsula, it’s worth remembering that the region is also undergoing major economic changes – and we should expect to see reform in North Korea this year. All the signs are there if you look beyond the past few weeks. Kim Jong-un has announced that improving standards of living is his top priority; laws are being revamped; and a reform-minded official, Pak Pong-ju, has become his prime minister.
There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un has to reform his economy for efficiency and productivity, through competition and a market economy. There are many challenges to doing this, but first and foremost he needs stable conditions in his country. For this, China’s support is critical, since it means he does not have to rely on the international community as much. Nukes and the noise of the past weeks will help Kim Jong-un to have his hands free for economic development. From my experience on the ground in North Korea, I’d say he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Overall, the tensions on the Peninsula have to a large degree been hyped by the media – helped largely by Pyongyang itself, which has a habit of releasing crazily worded statements. After all, it is a PR campaign and the Western media is a willing instrument. Much of the tension is, in fact, a media creation orchestrated by Pyongyang itself. North Korea keeps issuing conditional messages (if you do A, we will do B). Our media tend to omit the first part.
The message they want to send is: “We’re scary, we are determined; we are incalculable, so you’d better leave us alone.” The West has been smart enough not to call their bluff. Indeed; why not pretend to be scared? That’s all they want from us.
Author: Ruediger Frank is Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Korea
Image: A soldier stands in front of a rocket launch pad in Pyongyang REUTERS/Bobby Yip