from Asia Unbound

Colonel Brian Killough: The Catch-22 of Modern Chinese Foreign Policy

February 04, 2013

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) and Wang Jiarui, the head of the International Liaison Department of China's Communist Party, walk together for their meeting in Pyongyang on August 2, 2012.
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Colonel Brian Killough is the U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Joseph Heller’s famous novel, Catch-22, the bombardier, John Yosserian, is caught in a situational paradox. Yosserian wants to be declared unfit for duty because he doesn’t want to fly in combat where he might be killed. But, by expressing his lack of desire, he shows himself to be sane and therefore among the most fit to fly in combat. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) finds itself today in a foreign policy paradox. On the one hand, the PRC repeatedly asserts its right to retake the world stage as a major international power and influence global standards, norms, and positions. This influence is increasingly necessary to maintain the nation’s economic growth. On the other hand, the PRC has been a staunch defender of the sovereign rights of nation-states and espouses a policy of noninterference. This stems from the desire to be able to handle declared “internal” Chinese issues such as Tibet, Uighur unrest, and individual freedoms as the PRC sees fit.

With foreign policy, the PRC wants to resolve disputes regionally where the PRC has the most influence. Examples include the territorial and resource disputes with the Phillipines and Vietnam in the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with Japan. Yet, when handed a golden opportunity to show themselves as leaders in the region and indeed, the world, by persuading North Korea (DPRK) to end its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, the most the PRC does is issue a series of diplomatic condemnations and agree to watered-down United Nations sanctions.

If the PRC took all necessary action and actually acted as a regional mentor to a nation that disregards all other voices, the applause and recognition from the rest of the international community would be deafening. In addition, the PRC could actually help the DPRK begin to emerge from the international isolation resulting from the DPRK’s belligerent behavior over the last sixty-three years. The two main risk factors for the PRC are:

  1. DPRK openness might lead eventually to regime change and reunification with the Republic of Korea
  2. The PRC, itself, would incur new expectations with respect to living up to international agreements and norms

To be fair, the PRC has allowed an ”increasingly dialectic domestic debate over China’s North Korea policy.” However, this debate has yet to show any effect on state policy beyond words. And, unlike Yosserian, the PRC will have to choose which path to take. Will China remain insular and hold steadfast to its non-interference principles? Or, will the benefit of continuing to grow into a stronger global power persuade new chairman Xi Jinping to take concrete steps to exert positive influence on North Korea? Time will tell, but with every passing day and each subsequent irrational act by North Korea, the PRC loses respect from its peers and risks being identified with the rogue regime. Conversely, the PRC could side with the overwhelming majority of nations that support new sanctions. Surely, the PRC has come too far down the road of globalism and international cooperation to turn its back on the opportunity for recognition and power.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.