from Asia Unbound

China’s Tough Choices

June 4, 2010

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Photo courtesy of REUTERS/CCTV via Reuters TV

Remember all those books and articles about a “power shift” in Asia, or China “eating America’s lunch,” or the relentless advance of Beijing’s soft power?  What a difference a couple of months make.

Here we are, nearly 10 weeks after North Korea torpedoed the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, and perceptions of Chinese foreign policy seem suddenly to be turning upside down.  And with good reason.  China’s strategic environment has deteriorated, not least because of its own choices but especially because of North Korea’s.

As Victor Cha pointedly argues in this interview with, the Chinese have been “weak, clumsy, totally anachronistic in terms of how they’ve dealt with this.“  “The Chinese are supposed to think long term,” Victor adds.  “What they’re doing right now is not long term thinking.”

China offers a rather extraordinary picture these days.

Let’s put aside for a moment China’s arguments against pressuring North Korea.  Beijing has voted to refer North Korean noncompliance with safeguards agreements to the UN Security Council.  And although enforcement has been a challenge, it’s voted for tough sanctions resolutions, such as UNSCR 1718 and UNSCR 1874.  But despite that, China has never really embraced coercion of North Korea.  In fact, the Chinese have been pretty consistent in that view since 2002.  So China’s stance on North Korea may be weak … but it’s hardly unpredictable.

The more interesting spectacle involves the questions that now arise about Chinese foreign policy in East Asia, more generally.

Analysts have been parsing and debating Chinese aspirations for years.  But there’s some consensus, certainly, about three goals.  China has sought, particularly over the last decade, to:

(1) Improve its security environment in East Asia—for example, by embracing closer political and trade relations with America’s allies, not least South Korea.

(2) Enhance China’s image, presenting a less threatening face to the region.

(3) If opportunities arrive, seek benefit from whatever doubts might arise about U.S. credibility and staying power in Asia.

And (4) China has also sought to integrate with Asia and the world—enhancing interdependence, but also increasing others’ dependence on the Chinese economy in ways that might shape their choices.

That fourth goal remains largely on track as China’s sheer economic weight in Asia and the world increase.  But the first three goals, more political and strategic in nature, are under direct threat as a result of North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan.

Start with China’s improved security environment. Beijing’s strategic gains of the last decade are, in some areas, coming undone:  In just the past few weeks, Washington and Seoul have begun expanding defense coordination, and will soon begin running drills and holding additional exercises. And Washington and Tokyo moved forward on relocating a U.S. airbase in Okinawa after eight months of stasis.  Then there are the various developments that preceded North Korea’s attack.  Indonesia and Vietnam have drawn closer to the United States.  U.S.-Malaysian relations have improved significantly.  And despite tensions with the Obama administration, the United States now holds more military exercises with India than any other country in the world.  And New Delhi is forging deeper ties in East Asia.  Put simply, the United States has strategic opportunities, especially with Seoul, that haven’t existed for more than a decade.

Then there’s China’s effort to enhance its image.  China is increasingly seen in South Korea (and elsewhere) as an enabler of North Korean provocations.  It’s been unwilling to strongarm Pyongyang.  It failed to restrain the North from such a provocative act.  It wasn’t able to forestall earlier nuclear and missile tests, either.  All of these failures have raised questions about Chinese intentions, as well as Chinese capacity.  What’s more, despite a more accommodating line toward Tokyo from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, China has lately seemed more assertive with Japan, as well—for example by increasing its deployments to the East China Sea.

Indeed, Beijing is strikingly isolated on the North Korea issue.  Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo are broadly aligned.  Moscow is sending a technical team to Seoul to follow up on the results of a multinational investigation of the sinking.  And so among the five countries most immediately affected by North Korean behavior—the other parties to the Six Party Talks—China stands increasingly alone.

Finally, there’s the issue of American staying power in Asia:

The November 2009 Joint Statement between presidents Obama and Hu Jintao included this significant line:  “China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”  It’s the sort of statement that some believed China would find hard to make.  Yet there’s little question, too, that China has sought to advance its own relative strength in East Asia.  So it’s significant that the United States is now expanding alliance coordination—and may yet develop new opportunities for trilateral coordination with Seoul and Tokyo.  In short, America’s postwar role as security guarantor in Northeast Asia seems newly robust, vital, and enduring.

I don’t want to overstate this.  Economic and political realities will continue to dictate a growing Chinese role across East Asia.  And as I’ve argued here and here, China is at the center of all sorts of regional integration efforts in East Asia. But in the political and security realm, Chinese gains of recent years are in some jeopardy.

I’ll be watching five relationships:

1.  China-South Korea.  For 20 years, China has sought to diversify its portfolio on the Korean Peninsula by moving beyond Pyongyang and placing some serious economic (and political) bets on Seoul.  But it would be hard to overstate just how gobsmacked many South Koreans are by Chinese behavior since the Cheonan sank.

2.  China-North Korea.  China continues to proclaim its abiding desire for peace and stability on the Peninsula.  But if it wasn’t clear before, it should now be crystal clear that Pyongyang threatens that cherished Chinese goal.  Yet many in China cling to the notion that U.S. and South Korean “failures” have cornered the North.  How long will such views persist?  And can they continue to persist if North Korea undertakes additional provocations?

3.  U.S.-South Korea.  New possibilities are emerging for coordination, especially on defense.  So after a decade of tension under two prior administrations in Seoul, Korean strategists are rethinking things like a plan to transfer wartime operational control from the U.S. to South Korea.  And alliance coordination has grown tighter.

4.  U.S.-South Korea-Japan.  Trilateral coordination has long been a challenge, in part because of the difficulty Seoul and Tokyo have faced in overcoming the historical legacy of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula.  But despite political uncertainty in Tokyo, new security pressures, not least from North Korea, could provide new impetus to work more closely.

5.  U.S.-China.  Finally, there’s China’s investment in its relations with Washington.  U.S.-China relations have steadied after a rough patch earlier this year.  But China’s choices affect perceptions.  And Beijing’s choices about the Cheonan have done nothing to bolster confidence, not least in U.S. perceptions of what China is and isn’t capable of on the world stage.

The events of the past 10 weeks will test China’s capacity to achieve many of its strategic goals in Northeast Asia.  And in South Korea, in particular—the U.S. ally with whom Beijing once appeared to be making its greatest gains—twenty years of effort are now at risk.

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