A Chance to Appease China

In the wake of North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan last March, the Obama Administration has been trying to muster Chinese support for renewed sanctions against the Stalinist regime. So far, its efforts have been frustrated by division within Beijing’s ruling class.

After international investigators proved that the North had been responsible for the sinking last month, even China, North Korea’s sole, if lukewarm, ally in the region could not afford to stay aloof. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called on all parties to “stay calm and exercise restraint.” Kim Jong-il headed for Beijing immediately to beg for support but there is a good chance that China will not veto UN Security Council action as it has before.

American secretary of state Hillary Clinton also traveled to East Asia where she expressed American solidarity with South Korea. After meeting with President Lee Myung-bak, Clinton said that it would be in “everyone’s interest, including China, to make a persuasive case for North Korea to change direction.” Her plea is unlikely to have fallen on deaf ears entirely. There is mounting discord among the Chinese leadership over how to cope with North Korea’s increasingly assertive stance on the world stage.

The division is reflective of China’s two camps. On the one hand are the hardliners who occupy prominent posts in the military and at Communist Party schools. They suspect that the United States are conniving to deceive China and keep it poor. On the other side stand internationally-oriented bureaucrats, including many in the Foreign Ministry and banking sector, who want to maintain peaceful ties with the West. The hardliners may have dominated in recent months, as evidenced by the persecution of Rio Tinto officials and the government’s response to Google’s decision to pull out of China, but the internationalists aren’t giving up. The current Korean situation is fueling their push to cooperate more productively with the rest of the world, the United States especially.

The Obama Administration appears aware of the split. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday, China’s military is blocking efforts to strengthen it ties with the United States. Progress on mutual security issues has been “held hostage,” according to Gates, because the Chinese are upset with America’s recent arms sales to Taiwan. Again, the hardliners are having their way.

In all fairness to the Chinese, the Obama Administration hasn’t done a particularly impressive job at “strategically reassuring” them as was promised. Sinophobia continues to influence thinking in military circles; Sino-American relations are shaky. So ambivalent have the Americans been about their commitment to what is destined to become the defining international relationship of the twenty-first century that in March, the Financial Times urged Washington to be consistent toward China. “The important thing is to keep both elements of the relationship to the fore,” the paper recommended, “rather than fluctuating from one to the other according to circumstances — dismaying first the Chinese leaders and then the human rights activists and victims of China’s abuses.”

North Korea’s evermore bellicose posturing should be regarded as an opportunity to exploit the internal divide — and make a definite choice about how best to approach China.

Chinese civilian leaders have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about the North’s behavior. They are the administration’s allies. The Chinese military is powerful and the United States should endeavor to restore military-to-military contacts. But as North Korea continues to act erratic, the Chinese will be hard pressed to maintain their support for their neighbor Communist state. By working with the Chinese, not in spite of them, the United States may invigorate their internationalist school while dissuading the hardliners who will only grow stronger if the administration keeps regarding China as a future adversary before anything else.