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New Cold War in Asia?
Beijing Acts Like North Korea's Defense Lawyer in Court of Public Opinion
Special Contribution
By Victor Cha
CSIS Korea Chair

The most likely crisis that the next presidents of
the United States, China, and South Korea will
encounter at some point after they each take offi ce
in 2012 will be North Korean instability. This could
occur as a result of the death of the ailing leader
Kim Jong-il and a failed succession attempt by his
not yet 30-year-old son. Or, instability could result
from continued North Korean belligerence that
escalates out of control.

The key to averting such a crisis is better cooperation
among the key players on the peninsula—
Washington, Seoul, and Beijing. This cooperation
may not be forthcoming, however, if one considers
the pattern of China’s performance in response
to the North Korean provocations in 2009 and 2010 — including a second nuclear test, the torpedoing
of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan,
the artillery shelling of a South Korean island, and
revelations regarding a second uranium-based nuclear

Why? Since normalization of relations with South
Korea in 1992, Beijing has tried to maintain an
equidistant policy between the two Koreas. What
happens in one bilateral relationship is completely
separate, in Beijing’s eyes, from what happens in
the other. Beijing keeps its time-honored communist
alliance with a struggling North Korean regime,
while it also signs contracts with Pyongyang
that extract raw materials, including rare earth
m i n e r a l s, out of the North for consumption
by China’s poor northeastern provinces.

South of the 38th parallel, Beijing engages
in a burgeoning economic relationship with Seoul,
now the 11th largest economy in the world. Annual
business with the South is 100 times that with
the North (US$180 billion vs. US$1.8 billion).
This equidistant policy worked so long as Seoul
could countenance it and as long as Pyongyang
did nothing egregious enough to force China’s
hand. Even when the North carried out a nuclear
test in 2006, China escaped pressure because half
of the blame lay with a then-recalcitrant Bush administration that refused dialogue with the North.

The North Korean provocations of 2009–2010,
however, have forced China to choose. And thus
far, Beijing has made all the wrong choices, creating
conditions for a new Cold War in Asia.

China remains mired in anachronistic thinking.
In the name of communist brotherhood,
Beijing has basically acted like North Korea’s
defense lawyer in the court of public opinion.
It still has not condemned the most blatant acts
of North Korean military aggression since the
Korean War. And it refuses to work with the
United States and United Nations to condemn
North Korea’s uranium-based nuclear program.

This communist allegiance is ironic because it was once the Chinese who accused the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan of hanging on to “dinosaur-era” Cold War era alliances.

China has allowed its domestic needs to impede
its grand strategy. For the past 15 years, China
has pursued a somewhat successful charm
offensive in Asia, but its protective treatment of
North Korea has only added to the chorus of
concerns among the South Koreans, Japanese,
and Southeast Asians that a rising China may not
be a benevolent hegemon in Asia. China supports
Kim Jong-il’s attempt to transfer power to his young son, Kim Jong-eun, because it sees a unified Korea, allied with the United States and Japan, as inimical to Chinese interests.

Moreover, maintaining nearterm stability is important for Beijing such that it can continue its predatory economic policies of draining the North of resources to feed the revitalization of the landlocked northeastern provinces Liaoning and Jilin.

Chinese in the know whisper that they understand the gravity of North Korean bellicosity, but admit that the paramount goal is to maintain stability on the peninsula. A weak Chinese response, however, only encourages a desperate North Korean leader to rattle the peace in order to extort benefi ts from others, to credential the young son with military accomplishments, and to develop further nuclear weapons capabilities. This sort of short-sighted behavior raises real questions about China’s purported role as a rising new leader in Asia. Leaders contribute to the public good of peace and stability. They do not detract from it by sitting on the sidelines.

Beijing could register its displeasure with Pyongyang through dialing down signifi cantly the assistance that passes through unseen by vibrant party and military channels. Working through these channels can infl ict real pain on Pyongyang such that Kim will not contemplate more acts of aggression, but can also save the Chinese some face by not looking as though Beijing has been strong-armed by the Americans and South Koreans.

Most important, the United States, South Korea, and China would be wellserved by quiet discussions about how to respond to instability in North Korea. It is a contingency that Asia is least prepared for, yet it is the most likely contingency especially when stroke-stricken Kim Jong-il, now 68 years old, passes away. No one can predict when this will happen, but there is a better than 50-percent chance that Kim could depart from the scene before the next American president leaves offi ce.

Washington and Seoul understand the situation and have engaged in bilateral preparations, but Beijing remains reluctant. It would seem to make good sense to start working with the United States and ROK today if China wants to ensure its place on the peninsula tomorrow.

Dr. Victor Cha's article is from CSIS Global Forecast 2011.

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Dr. Victor Cha is Korea Chair of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). He earned his MA from Oxford, and Ph.D. from Columbia. Many books he authored include the award-winning author of "Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle." As prolific writers of articles on int'l relations in such journals as Foreign Affairs and The Washington Quarterly, he also interacts frequently with CNN, NYT, and Washington Post as well as Korean media.






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