Beijing nurtures new foreign policy thinking

Por • 14 feb, 2013 • Sección: Política

Francesco Sisci

ROME – North Korea’s testing for the third time of a nuclear device goes against all the better advice from the world, and amid unprecedented stern warnings from Beijing.

The underground explosion on Tuesday will not simply test Pyongyang’s nuclear capability but also Beijing’s resolve to confront a restive neighbor that was once described as being as close to China as lips and teeth. And this can’t be limited to the official reaction from Xinhua news agency saying: «It has come to a point for all parties concerned to think and act rationally to create favorable conditions to revive the long-stalled six-party talks and avoid a disastrous fallout.

Here there is a bigger and different picture in foreign affairs that starts to unfold in China.

Less than a week before the test, the Global Times newspaper (the most widely sold in China and published by the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily) on February 6 released a revolutionary commentary on North Korea. The article threatened a split from North Korea, as happened with the Soviet Union, if Pyongyang moved ahead with its third nuclear test. China has concerns but does not «fear» North Korea or the fallout from possible developments in North Korea. The statements invited Pyongyang to step up to a mature level of ties rather than one based on blackmail. The commentary said:

Some believe that the US, Japan, and South Korea are provoking trouble for ties between China and North Korea, and China cannot fall for this. This kind of provocation may be true. But China cannot fall into a new trap in trying to avoid this kind of snare and end up having its nuclear policy kidnapped by North Korea.

Moreover, the article noted that «in neighboring countries the concept of being ‘pro-American’ has changed. Which is not to be an enemy of China.»

The allusion is to South Korea, which although definitely allied with the United States, has in recent months sided against Japan (another pro-American country) in the dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.

China sees the complexity of international relations and recognizes that to solve the issue of the islands it must look at the broader picture. Americans may not care too much about the Senkakus and may be more concerned about much more delicate North Korea. On this, Beijing takes a very strong, public stand, which is exceptional for them since the Americans have taken a softer tone, although they are always firm. US Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA director who spearheaded the six-party talks on North Korea, recently urged Pyongyang to desist from the test in an article for Asia Times Online (see Resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, Asia Times Online, January 29, 2013). He did so without making threats but by appealing to reason and explaining the benefits to North Korea if they took a more conciliatory policy.

China has also increasingly distanced itself from Iran in recent months. China has reduced its oil imports, and Americans recognize that China’s new position has been instrumental in pushing Iran toward a more conciliatory attitude to nuclear talks.

Finally, Beijing is easing up on the Senkaku Islands issue. This week, Tokyo publicly accused the Chinese navy of locking her missile tracking radar on two Japanese naval vessels. According to military experts, this had happened in the past but before it was never made public. This kind of action – the «provocation» of deciding to give publicity to an event which is not really new – would normally make Beijing feel backed into a corner and spark a new Chinese outcry. This time however, Beijing has chosen to play down the controversy by announcing an investigation into the matter and by claiming that the Chinese ships were not pointed at anything.

Basically what is happening is new success across the board in Chinese foreign policy in the region. The Senkaku Islands will not be returned to China now or anytime soon, but Beijing didn’t truly expect that in any case. Beijing has instead confirmed something that was not previously clear: that the islands are disputed, which to this day Japan does not admit. China does so because in the light of the recent confrontation the whole world sees that the islands are disputed.

This situation on the Senkaku then creates a different backdrop for negotiations over the next decade between China and Japan on gas fields in the area. The central point of the dispute has been whether the ownership determined the continental basis and thus the maritime border. For years, Beijing has argued that the Senkakus were legally «rocks» (they could not be used to determine the maritime border), and Tokyo said they were «islands». Then, although Japan won the contention that the Senkaku are to be considered «islands», China objected to Japanese possession of the islands, and now after months of friction, China has in fact tried and won the case before the world.

To this achievement could be added the possible further success of bringing North Korea under stricter control after decades of waywardness. The Global Times article hinted that if Pyongyang didn’t cancel its test, China – North Korea’s sole supplier of energy (70%) and food (from 30% to 50%) – might cut aid. Both possibilities open new scenarios in East Asia – and also in the Middle East and Iran. This effectively offers the US the prospect of rethinking its focus in Asia and considering less confrontation and more cooperation with Beijing, which in turn would have huge repercussions globally.

Many things are still open, but definitely a new thinking is blooming in Beijing on international affairs and the US pivot in Asia can’t ignore this.

The onus in the next days is on Beijing: how will it react to Pyongyang’s defiance and if this will be somehow the beginning of the end of the hermit kingdom and this will bring the region closer together; or if Pyongyang will manage, as it did many times in the past, to drag Beijing away from the rest of the global community. Will then China be able to find a third way?

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at

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