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Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt Headshot

Despite Reports, China's North Korea Policy Stays the Same

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During Hu Jintao's visit, he penned a joint statement with President Obama in which -- for the first time -- he voiced concern about North Korea's new uranium enrichment. Many in the U.S. and South Korea are hailing this as support for their position, but they should know better. Despite tactical moves to smooth Hu Jintao's visit, little about China's North Korea policy has changed over the last few weeks nor is it likely to anytime soon.

In the past, a less strident Beijing's willingness to calibrate its responses to North Korean provocations was key to the West's strategy to moderate Pyongyang's behavior. But internal debates on North Korea policy have given way to traditionalist and conservative forces increasingly dictating the line, backed by nationalist public opinion. Over the past year and a half, China has strengthened its political, economic and military relationship with the North, refusing to hold Pyongyang to account for deadly attacks on the South which recently brought the peninsula the closest to war since 1953.

China's top concern of instability on its border deepened in 2009 following reports of Kim Jong-Il's failing health, a disastrous currency reform, and uncertainties surrounding leadership transition. But Beijing's calculations are also increasingly shaped by rising concerns about a perceived U.S. strategic "return to Asia" and by opposition to American military and political presence in the region. China is using its close ties with Pyongyang as a bulwark against U.S. military dominance in the region, giving the rogue nation virtually unconditional diplomatic protection. The two presidents' joint statement this week glosses over all of these realities.

When North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on November 23 and after the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan on March 26, China's initial reaction was to dismiss international calls to pressure North Korea. Instead, it criticized U.S. and South Korea for military exercises held in response, which it viewed as more threatening to its security than North Korea's violent behavior. It felt the U.S. was using tensions on the Peninsula as a justification to expand its regional military presence. China also worried about the deepening military cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, seeing U.S. security assistance not only as an attempt to contain China but also as emboldening regional players against it. While weeks after the shelling, China toned down its criticism of the U.S. and sent an envoy to Pyongyang, it has made no changes to its fundamental economic, military and political support to Pyongyang. Beijing's tactical moves should not be confused with a broader shift in its approach towards North Korea.

Beijing's solidarity with Pyongyang has significantly strained relations with South Korea and Japan, which are strengthening their security alliances with the U.S. Their rejection of China's call for emergency consultations after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling was more than a display of frustration at Beijing's unwillingness to take concrete action. It showed a widening gap between the two camps' perceptions of the North Korean threat and the appropriate ways to manage it. There is a real danger that the North will continue its asymmetric attacks in the Yellow Sea or elsewhere in the South. In response, Japan and South Korea are significantly boosting their military capabilities, intensifying the risk of a regional arms race or of a miscalculation leading to war.

Beijing's stance on North Korea is only the latest example of its increasingly assertive foreign policy behavior. Over the past year, it has intensified sweeping claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands, escalated a minor incident at sea into a major confrontation with Japan, and showed off a new stealth fighter aircraft just as the U.S. and China were trying to restart their military relations. Beijing is more unwilling now to yield to external demands and increasingly expects quid pro quos from the West in return for cooperation on third country issues such as North Korea and Iran. A common question in Chinese policy circles is why continue to cooperate with the U.S. when it continues to sell arms to Taiwan.

China needs to step up to the plate and assume the responsibilities that come with its rising power status. It has censured North Korea in the past after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. Its failure to do the same now -- for the Cheonan sinking, Yeonpyeong Island attack and Pyongyang's new uranium enrichment -- endangers not just the region but also its own security interests. Shielding Pyongyang and continuing unconditional engagement reduces all other countries' ability to deter North Korea. China's strategy leaves it vulnerable to accusation that it is responsible for enabling North Korea's next attack. Let's hope President Obama realizes the joint statement must be backed up with a stern message to President Hu that Beijing's increasingly cozy relationship with Pyongyang and insistence on backing the North's bad behavior only heightens the risk of regional conflict.

Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt is Northeast Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group.