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China's Xi signals limited shift away from North Korea

Chinese President Xi Jinping took an unusually harsh tone this weekend on the North Korea crisis, saying that no country should be allowed to upset world peace. 

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China's President Xi Jinping speaks during a meeting with representatives of entrepreneurs at the annual Boao Forum in Boao, in southern China's Hainan province, Monday, April 8, 2013.

Tyrone Siu/AP

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For once, Washington and Beijing are on the same side. Both the United States and China have lost patience with North Korea’s intensifying threats of war, and both fear that a misstep could spell disaster.

Could that coincidence of interest lead the two often fractious rivals to cooperate to defuse the crisis, as former US ambassador to China and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman suggested to CNN on Sunday?

Perhaps, but only up to a point.

The current situation, in which North Korea has threatened the US and its ally South Korea with nuclear strikes, is “a golden opportunity for the US and China to work together and build mutual trust,” argues Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing.

But “there are limits to any cooperation" because the two nations’ long-term interests differ, cautions Cai Jian, deputy head of the Korean Studies Research Center at Fudan University in Shanghai.

To be sure, both want to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and to preserve peace on the Korean peninsula.

The United States, though, “wants to see denuclearization even at the cost of regime change” that would upend Kim Jong-un’s government in Pyongyang, says Denny Roy, an expert in northeast Asian security at the East-West Center in Honolulu. “In fact, to American ears, regime change sounds pretty good,” he adds.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, “wants denuclearization but not at the risk of regime change” that would have unpredictable consequences for Beijing’s long-time ally, Dr. Roy points out.

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At the moment, says Daniel Sneider, an analyst at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Center, “there is a curious parallel” between US and Chinese positions on the Korean crisis.

“Neither wants to see an escalation of tension that could lead to an exchange of fire, and both are worried about what their respective allies might do in that situation,” he says.

“There is no doubt that China is angry at the North Koreans and worried that they might do something,” adds Sneider. “But the question is still whether that will make Beijing intervene.”

In a speech Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”

That was a slap at both North Korea and the United States, whose current military maneuvers in South Korea first prompted Pyongyang’s vitriolic response, say Chinese scholars. “He was trying to kill two birds with one stone, but his primary target was North Korea,” explains Professor Cheng.

The unusually harsh tone of President Xi’s comment echoed a warning from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday that China “does not allow any troublemaking on China’s doorstep.”

The message, believes Cheng, is that if Pyongyang continues to ignore Beijing’s admonitions to halt its nuclear and long-range missile tests, China “will take unilateral action, including meaningful reductions in aid” for the first time. North Korea depends on subsidized shipments of Chinese fuel and food.

“China’s soft line has not worked, but neither has the US hard line,” says Cheng. “The two governments have to find a way to strike a balance.”

The problem, though, is that “any policy tough enough to promote denuclearization would also probably risk regime change,” so China would reject it, predicts Roy.

Though China and the US share an interest in peace on the peninsula and a denuclearized North Korea, “China is opposed to any US interference in the balance of power” between North and South Korea, points out Professor Cai. “For China, stability means the status quo,” he says.

US officials would like to see China change its strategic calculus, and come round to the Western view that the status quo – the perpetuation of Kim Jong-un’s regime – carries more risks than the likely results of being tougher on Pyongyang.

A debate on such questions has been raging amongst Chinese scholars and government advisers for some time, in the face of North Korea’s defiance of Beijing’s will. Those favoring a harder line against Pyongyang appear to have gained ground, but they have by no means carried the day.

Xi’s statement on Sunday, suggests Cai, “marks a slight shift in China’s position … toward putting more pressure on North Korea in this crisis. But China is being very careful to modulate its policy, because it does not want to see North Korea collapse.

“The overall policy toward North Korea has not changed,” says Cai. “China may cooperate to some extent with the United States in this crisis, but when the crisis is over, the cooperation will be over too.” 

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