North Korea as Barrier to China’s Great Power Aspirations

Chuck Kraus at the Foreign Devil blog, excavating a provocative and accurate piece by Bonnie S. Glaser, parses the shifts in Chinese policy attitudes toward North Korea.   After all the scrum over the (admittedly quite important) details of the arrest and release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, this type of analysis gets one back to the “macro” picture.  After all, when the history of Northeast Asian foreign relations is written in a few decades, it is entirely possible that the most important event of 2009 was China’s effectively decisive shift out of the brotherly posture toward North Korea prompted by one too many earth-shaking nuclear tests, not a couple of Californian journalists who reunited a declining head of state (Kim Jong Il) with a former head of state (Clinton).   

Why did China decide to make this shift?  Glaser is quite correct in her analysis (as is Kraus from his perch in Shanghai), but she fails to draw the conclusion that China’s move away from North Korea also insulates the PRC from accusations of Chinese expansionism/overreach in a period when Western sensitivities toward this notion are already high. (Witness the paranoia over Chinese influence in Africa, where Beijing is in part snaffling up oil assets to hedge against American dollars.)  That is to say, Western perceptions of China as “the ultimate power behind the throne” in North Korea could potentially expand in a fashion hostile to China even though China is opposed to North Korean nuclear development.  If this idea sounds ridiculous to you, talk to the editors of the Atlantic Monthly and ask them what a nice bump in circulation they got with a red-tinged cover story by the (non-Korea expert, but undoubtedly well-travelled and saavy) Robert Kaplan about how China somehow winds up as the main beneficiary of a crumbling North Korea.    

If the U.S. seems congenitally unable to link North Korea into its broader foreign policy (witness the humiliating lack of coordination with the Megumi/abductee-obsessed Japanese on the hostage rescue; ditto for South Korea), then China is determined not to let North Korean intransigence interfere with the PRC’s broader rise as a responsible and legitimate power.