China’s Strongman Has a Weak Point: North Korea


(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

President Xi Jinping of China, center, in June. Mr. Xi has been reluctant to take on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. CreditPool photo by Dale De La Rey

BEIJING — Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is known as the Chairman of Everything. He makes decisions daily on the economy, the military, foreign policy, human rights and more.

Yet on North Korea he is stuck. A strongman who usually acts with precision and boldness, Mr. Xi has been reluctant to take on the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, ostensibly a Chinese ally, whom he privately disparages to Western leaders as young and reckless.

The July 4 test of the North’s first intercontinental ballistic missile has raised the question of what is China’s red line for its ally, and whether the test will force Mr. Xi to act decisively against North Korea as the Trump administration is asking him to do.

The answer? He will probably do little, if anything.

As much as Mr. Xi disapproves of North Korea’s nuclear program, he fears even more the end of Mr. Kim’s regime, a unified Korea with American troops on his border and a flood of refugees from the North into China. And despite North Korea’s missile advancement on Tuesday, Mr. Xi still has some breathing room, Chinese military and strategic experts said.

Chinese military experts are assessing the launch more conservatively than their American counterparts, saying they were not convinced the missile was actually an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“This test may or may not be an ICBM,” said Wu Riqiang, associate professor of international affairs at Renmin University. He said the missile was “probably unable to hit Alaska.”

In contrast, American experts said the North Koreans had crossed a threshold, if only just, with a missile that appeared able to reach Alaska. While the missile traveled only about 580 miles, it did so by reaching 1,700 miles into space and re-entering the atmosphere, North Korean, South Korean and Japanese officials said.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry suggested on Wednesday that the North’s missile had the potential to reach Hawaii, about 4,780 miles from Kusong, the North Korean town from where the missile was fired, and farther than Alaska.

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A photograph released by the Korean Central News Agency showing Mr. Kim after the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday. CreditK.C.N.A., via Reuters

On Wednesday, the top American general in South Korea, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, said that self-restraint was all that kept the United States and South Korea from going to war with the North.

Mr. Wu said the North’s long-range missile capabilities were less threatening to China than to the United States. China would be more concerned if the North had tested a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, he said.

China has always considered itself to be less threatened by North Korean nuclear capabilities than the United States, but it does fear American countermeasures, like its recent deployment of an antimissile system on South Korean soil to deal with the threat from the North. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, recently suspended deployment of that system, and there was no sign after the North’s missile launch that he was changing that position.

China may be increasingly frustrated by the North’s behavior, but it has never been the target of Mr. Kim’s weapons. The United States is the North’s declared enemy and the ultimate target of its nuclear arsenal.

More worrisome to China than the missile advances was the prospect of North Korea’s sixth test of a nuclear bomb, Mr. Wu and other experts said. China’s northeast, a depressed area of smaller cities and rusted industries, runs along the border with North Korea, not far from the tests. The nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri in North Korea is so close to the Chinese border that residents in the city of Yanji have complained that their windows rattled during the last several tests.

When the North tested a nuclear weapon in September 2016, local residents said they were afraid of large-scale leaks of radioactive material. Some said they were concerned that the North may actually use the bomb against China. There have been fears in the last few years of soil contamination in the northeast from the North’s nuclear testing.

“For China, a sixth nuclear test represents a graver threat than an ICBM test,” said Feng Zhang, a fellow in political science at the Australian National University. “North Korea’s ICBMs threaten the U.S. more than China, but North Korea’s nuclear weaponsand the testing of them near the Chinese border are a strategic and environmental threat to China.”

Mr. Wu said, “The missile launch just isn’t as pressing for China as a nuclear test might be.”

But no matter the North’s behavior, it would be very difficult for Mr. Xi to declare a red line with Pyongyang, either officially or unofficially, said Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor of international relations at Renmin University.

“The ICBM is not a Chinese red line — even the U.S. does not draw that line clearly and unequivocally,” Mr. Cheng said. If China did draw such a red line, he said, “China or the U.S. must automatically take retaliatory actions,” such as Beijing cutting off oil supplies to North Korea.

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Chinese residents near the Friendship Bridge on the Yalu River, which connects China and North Korea.CreditNicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But China cannot afford to squeeze the North so hard — by cutting off fuel, for example, or basic trade — that the country destabilizes, sending refugees pouring over the border.

Mr. Xi is at least publicly expressing disapproval of North Korea’s latest actions. He was in Russia visiting President Vladimir V. Putin when the North announced it had successfully tested an ICBM. The two leaders issued a joint statement calling for negotiations that would aim to freeze the North’s arsenal in exchange for limitations on the American military posture in South Korea.

Instead of penalizing North Korea, China has been calling for such negotiations for many months, but the Trump administration has declined.

Beyond cracking down on trade between the two nations, Mr. Xi holds very few cards against North Korea, and he has little choice but to rely on a kind of strategic hesitation, said a Chinese analyst of foreign affairs who sometimes advises the government.

“Xi as a strategist is facing an anguished choice to use up his means on Kim Jong-un while having no confidence at all that it would be effective,” said the analyst, Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. “What can this strategist do? A sort of hesitation is unavoidable.”

Mr. Xi is facing an increasingly “determined and decisive” Mr. Kim, and he is also confronted by an American president who is not easy to deal with, Mr. Shi said. “Xi and Trump are unable to see eye to eye for long, and even if they were it would extremely difficult to thwart Kim for long,” he said.

In Washington, Mr. Trump repeated his impatience with Mr. Xi. In a post on Twitter on Wednesday, the president said China’s trade with North Korea had grown by almost 40 percent in the first quarter. “So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try,” he said.

It was not clear where Mr. Trump got his 40 percent figure. A South Korean trade group said on Monday that China had imported much more iron in the last few months than previously. But the group also said that the North was a long way from making up the lost revenues from China shutting down its North Korean coal imports.

China’s trade with the North grew 37.4 percent during the first three months of the year, compared with the same period in 2016, Chinese trade data released in April showed. China said the trade grew even as it stopped buying North Korean coal.

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