On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attempted to defuse tensions in North Asia, proposing that North Korea suspend the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the US and South Korea suspend military exercises.
Wang’s comments suggest Beijing has become deeply concerned—alarmed even—and is trying to prevent what it sees as a potentially disastrous situation on the Korean peninsula.
The distress inside the Chinese capital is evident. “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, with neither side willing to give way,” Wang said in Beijing. “The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?”
Beijing’s solution is “to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.” “We will switch the issue back onto the track of seeking a negotiated settlement,” he said as he compared his country to “a switchman.”
Wang’s proposal is almost unprecedented in that it was made out in the open, where rejection would lead to embarrassment for a Beijing that does not like being rejected in public.
The public nature, therefore, suggests Beijing’s apprehension, but the foreign minister’s comments reveal two other things. First, they show that China’s perceptions of the North Korean situation differ greatly from those of others parties. China’s Communist Party, which has supported the Kim family since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, is not some neutral observer. It is a direct participant responsible for the maintenance the Kim dynasty’s rule over the course of decades.
“Engineer,” therefore, is a far closer description of Beijing’s role than “switchman” if we continue with Wang’s railroad metaphors. Eyes in Washington and Seoul must have rolled when Guo Rui of Jilin University called China a “victim of the turbulent situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Chinese officials point to strained relations with Pyongyang and promote the victimization narrative, yet we have to remember that Beijing supports the Kims not because they are friendly to China. Beijing supports the Kims because they promote important short-term Chinese objectives.
Every time North Korea does something provocative—detonate a nuclear weapon or launch a missile, for instance—Washington gets distracted from other issues and then seeks Beijing’s help, effectively giving China bargaining chips.
Analysts—many of them Chinese—say that China’s support of Pyongyang is not in their country’s long-term interests. They are correct, but Chinese policymakers, whether out of inertia or cynicism or misjudgment—or designed and duplicitous strategy—are continuing to support their long-time ally, in fact their only formal ally. Others may think China should calculate its interests differently—and they are also correct—but Chinese leaders see the world from a perspective not shared by others.
Second, Wang’s proposal was an obvious nonstarter and suggests Chinese diplomats are not ready to play a brokering role on the Korean peninsula. The apparent theory behind the Chinese “suspension-for-suspension” or “double freeze” concept is that US and South Korean forces do not need to prepare to defend the South if the North does not have a developed nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.
That proposition is manifestly untrue. North Korea maintains the world’s fourth-largest army in the world—behind India and ahead of Russia—and about 70 percent of its troops are forward-deployed, within 60 miles of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. Pyongyang also has large stocks of chemical and biological agents. Washington and Seoul have consistently rejected proposals in the past to end the drills because readiness would quickly degrade if they were to stop the exercises.
It’s unclear why Foreign Minister Wang would publicly make a proposal that would almost certainly be rejected, unless he were trying to tar Washington and Seoul. Yet if China is genuinely disturbed by the crisis-like atmosphere on the peninsula—and there are indications it in fact is—the making of a dead-on-arrival proposal undermined China’s position in the region and served no discernable goal.