ASIA: China Keen to Strengthen Sway over North Korea

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By Taro Ichikawa in Tokyo

China is deeply concerned about stability in North Korea and therefore availing of every opportunity to affirm its diplomatic support for Pyongyang, much to the chagrin of Japan, South Korea and the U.S., says a new report.

The latest instance of Chinas support for North Korea was when it fired artillery at South Koreas Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea off the countries west coast on November 23, 2010, setting houses on fire.
In response, the three countries have intensified trilateral coordination on North Korea. They rejected Chinas call for emergency consultations in the Six-Party format involving Russia, following the Island shelling, which underlined widening differences on threat perception and management.

The six-party talks aim to find a peaceful resolution to the security concerns as a result of the North Korean nuclear weapons programme, which started as a result of Pyongyang withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003.

A report released simultaneously in Brussels and Seoul on January 27, 2011 traces Beijings anxiety back to 2009 in the aftermath of reports of Kim Jong-Ils failing health, a disastrous currency reform (in November that year) and uncertainties surrounding leadership transition.

It hopes that its increased support for Pyongyang during the succession process will result in closer political ties and make the next generation of leaders more amenable to Chinese-style economic reform, says the report by the International Crisis Group based in Brussels.

According to the report, while support to North Korea is subject to internal debate in Beijing, traditionalist and conservative forces dominate policymaking and are supported by nationalist public opinion.

The approach to the North (Korea) is also powerfully shaped by rising concern about a perceived U.S. strategic return to Asia and opposition to greater American regional military and political presence, the report adds.

Concomitant with its national interests, as Beijing perceives these, China continues to strengthen its political and economic ties with North Korea. In the previous two years, the frequency of high-level visits has increased dramatically, including unprecedented two trips by Kim Jong-il in 2010.

Beijings policy towards North Korea continues to be fundamentally shaped by historical and security considerations: Korean War comradeship, together with the desire to preserve the North as a buffer against the U.S. and avoid a regime collapse that would trigger a flood of refugees into China, says the report.

This might sound logical in Beijing but the report warns: China is undermining its own security interests by downplaying North Koreas deadly provocations in the Yellow Sea.

Beijings increased solidarity with Pyongyang and reluctance to censure it for the deadly Yellow Sea clashes has significantly strained relations with South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

Seoul was offended by tardy condolences for the sinking in March 2010 of the vessel Chŏnan and the warm welcome Kim Jong-il received immediately following South Korean President Lee Myung-baks visit to China.

The Crisis Group looks into the implications of North Korea firing artillery at South Koreas Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea off the countries west coast on November 23, 2010, setting houses on fire. South Korea returned fire. Subsequently, the South Korean military said it was on highest non-wartime alert.

Initially China downplayed the Island shelling and criticised U.S. military deployment and exercises with allies in North East Asia, notes the analysis. However, the subsequent spike in inter-Korean tensions altered its threat perception and led it ultimately to tone down criticism of the U.S., send an envoy to Pyongyang and join with Washington in calling for talks between the North and South.

During President Hu Jintaos visit to the U.S. from January 17 to 21, 2011, China agreed to a joint statement that emphasised the importance of North-South dialogue and expressed concern for the first time regarding North Koreas uranium enrichment programme.

The joint statement signed by Presidents Hu and Obama during the Chinese leaders Washington visit . . . was welcome, but its practical effect remains to be seen, since China continues to shield Pyongyang and support it politically and economically, says the report titled China and Inter-Korean Clashes in the Yellow Sea.

But, it adds, China has ground to make up if it is to recover credibility as an impartial broker in the Six-Party Talks on North Koreas nuclear program.

China’s refusal to hold Pyongyang to account for its deadly attacks on South Korea prevents a unified international response, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Groups North East Asia Project Director. It invites further North Korean military and nuclear provocations and the increased militarisation of North East Asia.

Crisis Groups Asia Program Director Robert Templer sees in Beijings responses to the deadly clashes in the Yellow Sea a test of its willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder in regional security.

He adds: Chinas influence in Pyongyang makes it crucial for international efforts to address North Korea, but its policy of supporting the government instead of holding it to account heightens the risk of further military and nuclear provocations.

The report explains that Chinas growing power and foreign policy confidence are important factors underlying its ambivalence about the Island incidents.

After the sinking and what it viewed as a biased and flawed international investigation, it drew on its increased leverage to dilute the Security Council statement. And despite North Koreas undeniable responsibility for the Yeonpyeong Yŏnpyŏng Island shelling, it blocked Security Council action, says the report.

The report adds: In the past, Beijings willingness to at least calibrate its responses to North Korean provocations was seen by the West as essential for moderating Pyongyangs behaviour. Over the past year, however, Beijing has not only escalated its claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but also increasingly resisted external pressure over Iran as well as North Korea.

It feels under less pressure to yield to external demands and increasingly expects quid pro quos from the West in return for cooperation on sensitive third-country issues.

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