By Charles Armstrong
NEW YORK - Responding to last week's deadly clash between North and South Korea on Yeonpyeong Island, China has called for "emergency meetings" among the representatives of the six governments—South and North Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan, and China—involved in the stalled Six-Party Talks.
Many critics in Washington and Seoul see China’s response as too little, too late. Beijing remains steadfastly neutral on what it calls "the exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas" and has refused to join South Korea and the US in condemning North Korean aggression. Instead of resuming negotiations designed to contain North Korea's nuclear program, critics argue, China should be applying political and economic pressure to get North Korea to cease its provocative behavior. But so far China has refrained from singling out North Korea for blame or pressuring it to change its ways—at least in public.
As everyone knows, China has enormous leverage over North Korea—should it choose to use it. China is the largest supplier of food aid to North Korea and the source of 80 to 90 percent of its oil imports. In theory, China could cut off food and energy to North Korea and bring the regime to its knees.
But China has not done so, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon, for two reasons. First, the Chinese are not convinced that such pressure would really work; as one Chinese analyst put it, "North Korea is not the kind of country that, if its neighbor severs economic assistance, it will bow down and listen to it." Second, China would rather keep the current Pyongyang regime afloat than risk destabilizing North Korea through economic coercion. Despite private pressure and occasional public criticism of North Korea's actions in recent years (including joining UN sanctions in response to Pyongyang's nuclear test in 2009), China appears to support the power succession to Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Eun, and has engaged in numerous high-level talks with North Korea's leaders. If China were to criticize the North's recent actions it would do so behind the scenes, not in public.
Finally, China views the Korea problem in part as a proxy for its relations with the US. Beijing has strongly criticized US-South Korean joint naval exercises as an over-reaction to the Yeonpyeong clash, and seems to see them as a show of intimidation directed against China as much as a demonstration of deterrence against North Korea.
The current crisis is a test of US-China relations and the relative strength of American and Chinese power in the East Asian region. The US remains the predominant military force in the region, but the economic and political balance has shifted toward China in recent years. China may have leverage over North Korea, but US leverage over China is limited. The US cannot pressure China to take its side against North Korea, so long as China does not deem it in its own interest to do so.
Charles Armstrong is an Asia Society associate fellow and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.
"China Seeks Talks to Ease Korean Tensions," People's Daily, November 29, 2010.
"China Seeks Talks to Ease Korean Tension," The New York Times, November 28, 2010.