When Xi Jinping became the Chinese Communist Party chief, many South Korean observers expected that he would be tough on North Korea. As an increasingly confident superpower, China wouldn't tolerate the wanton behavior of its smaller neighbor, especially under the strong and charismatic leadership of Xi, who is more conscious of China's global image and more focused on China's own national interests, the logic went. In fact, China has been increasingly tough on the United States, not North Korea.
It's because, to borrow from theologian Paul Tillich, China's "ultimate concern" is the United States, not North Korea.
It is clear that China is displeased with North Korea. The displeasure has been growing under Xi since he assumed power in 2013 ― the year when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, enraging the Chinese. But Xi is also a leader who won't let his personal feelings cloud his foreign policy judgment, said Yun Sun, a senior associate with the Stimson Center in Washington D.C.
The Chinese, if they are anything, are crafty strategists and descendants of "the Art of War." From this viewpoint, it is not too strange for Xi to "volunteer" to send a "congratulatory message" to Kim Jong-un on his assuming the title of chairman of the ruling Workers' Party.
A few days ago, despite the media hype about China's "full" implementation of U.N. punitive sanctions on North Korea, Xi also dispatched its Olympic Basketball team to stage a "friendly match" in Pyongyang, with Kim in attendance. Moreover, Kim's confidant, Ri Su-yong, is currently visiting China.
These are all in accordance with their arrangements. When Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo visited North Korea and met with Kim in October 2015, the two sides agreed to implement "civilian exchanges" and "visits by ranking officials," and do so "next year," a person who met with Liu, told me.
In the aftermath of North Korea's fourth nuclear test, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "a new resolution should not provoke new tensions about the situation or destabilize the Korean Peninsula." At the Nuclear Security Summit, Xi reiterated Wang's remarks. In fact, China has been sending out a consistent message. Whether it is Xi or Wang or the foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, close observation shows that they display a remarkable coherence in narratives, even down to wording.
Observers correctly noted that China's political DNA was changing; China was transforming itself into a global superpower. As a major global power, China now has a different global outlook and vision for the region. The sentiment was even echoed by comments by the Chinese as well. For example, scholar Cheng Xiaohe said China has become "a formidable country with a large economy and a modern military."
But in terms of how the confident and powerful Beijing projects its might, South Korean strategists mistakenly calculated that it would be directed against North Korea. In fact, China's power projection was decisively and clearly about the United States, not the North. Instead of being tough on Pyongyang, Beijing has been increasingly tough on Washington. Just look at what's happening in the South China Sea.
Chinese analysts think strategic rivalry, competition for leadership in East Asia, and mutual mistrust between the U.S. and China are likely to deepen for the foreseeable future, amid Washington's "pivot to Asia," Tokyo's militarization, and the ongoing consultations between Washington and Seoul about the U.S.-led advanced missile defense system, THAAD. China is concerned that the U.S. is trying to strengthen its military alliances with Japan and South Korea. In fact, China suspects that the U.S. envisions a formal trilateral Washington-Seoul-Tokyo alliance. In this situation, North Korea's strategic value to China is bound to increase, not decrease.
From the Chinese side, the fundamental source of Sino-U.S. conflict is that Washington is trying to maintain its hegemony, while China tries to exercise what it perceives as its "legitimate rights" (zhengdang quanli). From China's point of view, if its rise will inevitably clash with the U.S., why then should Beijing help Washington and Seoul on Pyongyang when doing so would go against its own geopolitical interests?
Even though North Korea is a discomfort for China, often not obeying its socialist big brother's counsel, Beijing doesn't see Pyongyang as an adversary. It sees the North as an issue to manage, not an enemy to destroy. China's biggest threat comes from the United States, not North Korea.
On the sidelines of a recent conference, a retired Chinese general tersely said, "China will not push North Korea over the edge, as the South Koreans hope." He became curious and then posed a question: "Why then, does your South Korean media continue to say we will abandon North Korea?" It's a question for the South Korean media to answer.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at email@example.com.