China Plays Rope-a-Dope
OFK REGULARS KNOW that I view Shen Dingli as the living, breathing embodiment of everything about China’s government that’s maleficent, loathsome, arrogant, and neo-imperialist (to re-expropriate a term from the Marxists). Shen, a professor of “American studies,” regular visitor to Pyongyang, and frequent contributor to influential publications abroad, often appears to represent the views of his government, which ordinarily spares no effort to censor even the most insignificant weibo. In this murky capacity, Shen publicly green-lighted North Korea’s 2006 nuke test and reacted to the Yeongpyeong shelling by equating South Korean civilians to North Korean fish. Today, however, he is writing in Foreign Policy that China should “vote for tougher sanctions, while at the same time reducing aid and trade with its erstwhile ally.”
It’s tempting to take this seriously, but I won’t until I see lasting evidence of a tangible shift in China’s behavior. Will China support Chapter VII sanctions against North Korea in the Security Council? Will it enforce that resolution, or even those it has voted for in the past? I think it’s quite possible that, as before, China will briefly restrict cross-border trade, but I doubt that would last long, because China’s zero-sum calculation of its own interests and ours hasn’t changed. China wants to keep Korea divided, wants to keep Americans and their political models away from China’s borders, and wants to keep U.S. forces in the Pacific split between as many potential threats as possible.
Here is what I think this does mean. China has good intelligence in this town, in part because its spyware is on all of our computers. China senses that the momentum for very tough sanctions is building, and that the kind of sanctions being considered in Congress — and even advocated by the Editors of The Washington Post — could undo a decade of Chinese economic hegemony in North Korea. Economically, of course, one can only have modest interests in a nation with a GDP of $40 billion (compared to South Korea’s $1.2 trillion and America’s $15.5 trillion). The significance of those investments isn’t really economic, it’s territorial. What does North Korea export that China can’t produce itself? Have China’s investments in North Korea really been all that lucrative? By feigning outrage, China may hope to shift our focus back toward persuading its rulers instead of imposing sanctions outside the U.N. framework, and beyond the reach of its veto.
China can also see as well as we can that North Korea’s test has ignited a public debate in South Korea about getting nukes of their own, and that the test may give Japan’s government additional reasons to rearm. China can’t exactly exert hegemonic pressure on Japan or South Korea if it doesn’t at least pretend to exert pressure on the North, too. This isn’t to deny that China may find the timing of North Korea’s actions inconvenient and annoying, as it asserts itself against its neighbors in the Pacific. That doesn’t mean North Korea’s nuclear program has outlived its utility to China.
Statements like Shen’s might be seen as binding more representative governments, but of course, Shen isn’t exactly a government official, which makes him easy to disavow. Meanwhile, China is free to give North Korea whatever private assurances it wants, knowing that neither China nor North Korea has a press or a population that can hold either government accountable. Soon enough, both regimes must hope, this plume will blow over, and we’ll all be playing their game yet again.