The ICAS Lectures


China's Foreign Policy under New Leadership:
its Implications on the Korean Peninsula and Washington

Chong Wook Chung

ICAS Spring Symposium

May 18, 2011
United States House Rayburn Office Building Room 2255
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Chong Wook Chung

China's Foreign Policy under New Leadership:
its Implications on the Korean Peninsula and Washington

Chong Wook Chung

The topic of my talk is "China’s foreign policy under the new leadership: the Korean Peninsula and Washington." It is an interesting and attractive but difficult subject for many reasons.

And this includes the thick veil of secrecy surrounding the top leadership in China working behind the high wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Zhongnanhai next to the old palace.

The agony of difficulty doubles when it comes to the new leadership as it considers keeping a low posture as a golden rule for survival. Knowing the difficult nature of the topic, I nevertheless chose the topic for a few reasons.

First of all, it has to do with my own experiences, as a scholar as well as a government official. I have for long been concerned with, and puzzled by China, North Korea and their relations.

When I was working in the government these issues preoccupied most of my time and energy, not only my own but also those of many other government officials, including the President.

It was amazing to see how the issues had consumed many policy makers in Seoul.

The importance of the issues has increased many-fold since then. Now China is not only South Korea’s number one economic partner both in trade and investment but also an important political and strategic partner.

Also, when I was in the government in the 90s North Korea did not have nuclear weapons. Now it claims itself a nuclear weapons state and I believe we have to accept that as a de facto strategic reality whether we like it or not.

China is the only country with leverage over Pyongyang more than any other nations in the region. However evasive and frustrating the Sino-North Korean relations are, we cannot avoid the issue.

Second, the rise of China for over a decade by now has been at the heart of the challenges and opportunities for the countries in the region.

It is a cliché that the future of the post post-Cold War global and regional order largely depends on how China rises and how we respond.

The Korean peninsula is where the impacts of the rising China have been most visible. At the heart of the impacts stand the special ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Third, it is important for us to understand who the new Chinese leaders are and what their foreign policy preferences are. Starting from next year a new leadership will rule the world’s most populous and fastest growing economy for the next 10 years until 2022.

These 10 years are most important years for China, Asia and the world. The Chinese themselves used to say that the 10 years’ period of 2010 and 2020 would be a crucial turning point in the history of post-modern China

The Chinese government declared that in 2020 the goal of building a comprehensive xiaokang society would be achieved.

The literary meaning of xiaokang is a society where a small comfort is enjoyed, a stage of development where every Chinese live in relative comfort, not big but only small comfort.

But to me that is another indication of Chinese modesty, sort of Tao Gang Liang Hui, keeping low posture not to draw the other’s suspicion. I believe the practical meaning of a comprehensive xiaogang society is that China has indeed arrived as a super power.

With a per capita income of, say 5,000 US dollars in 2020, China’s nominal GDP will be almost 7 trillion US dollars. In real terms, it could be much more than that, perhaps what it is now the GDP of the US.

Without doubt, with that size of economy, China will be a great power. This may happen in the coming ten years, under the leadership of the fifth generation. It is a huge responsibility.

Like it or not the new leadership will have to confront it and realize this dream of the rise of China to a great power (daguo juiqi, ????), a vision Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and many other Chinese modernizers have dreamed since the Opium War in 1840.

With that fairly lengthy introduction, now let me turn to the subject of my talk. As I said at the outset, it is not an easy subject. So what I will do is to talk in terms of "do" and "don’t", that is, what we do know and what we don’t.

First, we do know for sure that in the fall of next year, probably in October, about 2,000 delegates of the Communist Party of China will gather in Beijing to convene their 18th National Congress. On the last day of the Congress which normally lasts for about 10 days, the delegates will choose the members for the 18th Central Committee, about 380 persons.

These people, consisting of the officials above the rank of ministers in the central government and governors and party secretaries of the provinces plus the senior generals in the military, will form the ruling elites for whole China during their five year term until 2017.

The central committee will meet for its first plenary session soon after the conclusion of the Congress to elect the top leaders, the members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee. These leaders, currently around 25 for the Politburo and 9 for the Standing Committee will rule China until 2022 when the sixth generation leadership will come to power.

Second, we do not know for sure who will be the members of the new Politburo and its Standing Committee. There are of many speculations, some credible and some not so credible, but only speculations. But with a reasonable degree of confidence we do know who will be at the very top of this new leadership.

This top leader will be Xi Jinping who is currently vice president of the state, a member of the Standing Committee, and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. These are the posts Hu Jintao had had before his rise to the very top.

Third, we know that the new fifth generation leadership at the Politburo and its Standing Committee will be a collective body. This means that Xi will have to share the power with other members, particularly with Li Keqiang who is likely to be the next premier of the state council. Currently, Li is the executive vice premier of the state council and also a member of the Standing Committee right behind Xi in the order of the official ranks.

We also know that Xi and Li represent two largest power groups in the new leadership, the princelings and the Youth faction. The former is the children of the senior revolutionary cadres, whereas the latter refers to those who worked in the Chinese Communist Youth League, the junior Communist Party. These two groups will form the primary ruling elites in China in the fifth generation and through check and balance will share the responsibility of the leadership.

Fourth, we know pretty well that Xi will have a major responsibility and power in the field of foreign policy and national security. The primary mechanism making major policies in the Politburo will be the leading small group in many different issue areas including energy, finance, foreign policy and national security.

The LSG in finance will most likely be chaired by Li Keqiang whereas the one in foreign policy and national security will be under the supervision of Xi Jinping. Under his supervision, the LSG in foreign policy and national security will consist of a few key ministerial officials including the minister of foreign affairs, trade, and national security, the director of the Party’s Liaison Department, as well as the vice premier or state councilor for foreign policy who serves as the body’s director.

Currently, Dai Bingguo, the state councilor, is the director of the body. It is like the national security council of the United States except that the recommendations it makes are subject to the approval of the Politburo and its Standing Committee.

Fifth, we know fairly well who Xi Jinping is. Xi brings with him a very interesting career. Born in 1953 into the family of a very senior revolutionary cadre, he experienced both the privileges of the political powerhouse and the sufferings of the political outcasts.

Xi was only 10 years old when his father, Xi Jhongxun, vice premier of the state council, was sent to jail for being close to and supportive of Peng Dehui who challenged Mao.

With his father falling in political disgrace, the junior Xi had to spend his early years in the remote countryside in Shaanxi province until Deng Xiaoping made his father the governor of Guangdung province. In that position Xi’s father succeeded in making the Shenzhen special economic zone a national model for reform and open policy.

The junior Xi studied Marxist ideology at the prestigious Tsinghua University; later he also earned a doctorate degree in law from the same university.

Joining the Communist Party in 1974, he spent most of his time working in the coastal provinces like Fujian, Zhejiang, and finally Shanghai. Of particular significance is the fact that he worked in Fujian for almost 20 years rising all the way from a low level party official to the provincial party secretary.

We can guess that the combination of the experiences of his father working on the Shenzhen special economic zone and his own in Fuzian influenced Xi’s perspective on economic development and relations with foreign countries including the US.

We also know Xi’s personality and his policy preferences, although only indirectly and somewhat vaguely. He is known as a liberal pragmatist, a believer in reform and open policies, in active engagement with the western capitalist economies. His attitude toward political reform is not clear as he is close to such political conservatives like Bo Xilai and at the same time known for his sympathy with Hu Yaobang and Zhao Jiyang whom his father supported.

He has many friends and supporters in the military through his father’s old connection and his early work experience in the Central Military Commission. Also, as a son of the senior revolutionary cadre, he is said to have a strong personal conviction that China’s rise as a great power is inevitable and beyond question, and that the children of the revolutionary families like him should play a leading role in it.

In short, Xi emerges as a leader as an strong elitist nationalist, an economic reformer, and probably a moderate conservative in matters of political liberalization. As to his leadership ability, we know that he is regarded as extremely able and efficient as demonstrated by his achievements in Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, and for his quite successful management of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

Also, he is hardworking, frugal and clean according to people who should know him including his wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous singer and a major general in the army. They have a daughter who studied at Harvard.

As to the more specific foreign policy measures he is likely to take as the leader, we do not know very much. But from various indirect sources, we can refer the following two points.

First, it is highly unlikely that he will take measures drastically different from those already taken by his predecessors, Hu Jintao and other fourth generation leaders who, succeeding the policy lines set by Jiang Zemin and his third generation leaders, made close cooperation with the West, the United States in particular, a cornerstone of their foreign policy.

While expanding China’s foreign relations into more diverse areas such as Africa, Latin America and Middle East, Hu Jintao stressed cooperation with the Western developed nations as a pivot of his foreign policy. Xi is not likely to depart from this policy line very far.

Of course one cannot rule out the possibility that China’s foreign policy under Xi will become assertive and even aggressive in addressing its national interests, particularly on issues where he regards China’s core interests are involved. This may become more obvious in the long run.

After the global financial crisis in 2008, China became increasingly assertive in safeguarding its own interests. As someone put it, with its quick and strong recovery from the global recession, "the image of the cautious, low-profile, free-riding China seemed to give way to one of a more confident, assertive, anti-status quo power that is pushing back against the West."

This new image has prompted some specialists to assert that the Chinese were finally ‘revealing their true colors’. It is their view that, China, in the face of a faltering Western democratic capitalist model, and with the confidence boosted by continued high growth rates and massive foreign exchange reserves, was now challenging American leadership of the global system."

In a similar vein, they also speculate that China, under the leadership of Xi and his fifth generation leadership, might make "a clear transition to a less cooperative, more assertive, fundamentally revisionist, and in many ways anti-Western approach to vital global and bilateral issues".

Although I would not necessarily exclude such a possibility in the long-term, I do believe that we should not exaggerate Chinese assertiveness. I think one needs be careful in defining Chinese assertiveness. My sense of Chinese assertiveness does not assume an aggressive posture with which China will challenge the US leadership. Its assertiveness, as I see it, is reflective of China’s pride and confidence rooted in its civilization.

Recently a book on China was published. This book titled "China Shakes" (Zhong Guo Qin Gan) has a subtitle which says "the Rise of a Nation as a Civilization (ige wenming xing guojiade juiqi)." It claims that China is not merely a nation; it is a civilization with more than 5,000 years of historical root.

It insists that the rise of China is not the same as the rise of a political and economic powerhouse trying to make a power transition as the realists would argue. What is rising is the Chinese civilization, not China as a national power. Unlike a nation, a civilization cannot be replaced.

For this reason, the author, Zhang Weiwei, argues that the rise of China will not be the same as the rise of a great power as witnessed in the Western history.

China is not competing to replace the West as a great power; what is currently taking place is the restoration of China as a civilization, and as such does not intend to challenge the West in the sense the Western scholars like Hans Morgenthau in his "Politics Among Nations" or John Meresheimer in his "The Tragedy of The Great Power Politics" predict. This is why China’s rise could be peaceful and harmonious.

What I see in this formulation of arguments is not an advocacy for a nationalistic, arrogant and assertive China willing to challenge the West in a contest for hegemony; instead I detect a sense of insecurity, a feeling of vulnerability, and at most a condescending attitude based on an inflated sense of superiority.

This of course is not to suggest that China has become feeble and domesticated. But I do believe China under Xi would not easily give up the policy of Tao Guang Liang Huei, keep a low profile and live in harmony with others.

Now, I would like to turn to the last subject, China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula, more specifically toward North Korea.

During the last two years, Chinese policy toward North Korea has changed significantly. It has become more patronizing and protective of North Korea. Someone said that the relationship between the two went back to the cold-war era, a relationship long described as the lips and teeth, a relationship born in blood of the Korean War.

Many thought this type of relationship had long disappeared with the fall of the socialist countries in Europe and the diplomatic normalization between Seoul and Beijing. Even the majority of the China’s Korea experts used to say that their relations with Pyongyang were no longer special; they were normal relations that China maintained with many of its neighbors.

The turning point in China’s policy toward North Korea was the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong by North Korean artillery batteries last year.

Understandably, the South Korean government was furious over these outrageous provocations and tried to solicit Chinese help in condemning North Korea.

President LMB having agreed with President Hu Jintao during the summit in Beijing in May 2008 to upgrade their relationship to a strategic cooperative partnership, hoped China would this time cooperate with Seoul in denouncing Pyongyang.

The hope turned out to be misplaced. Beijing refused to blame North Korea. Far from blaming North Korea, China began to reinforce its ties with Pyongyang with the frequent high level exchanges and stepped up economic cooperation. Kim Jong-il visited China twice last year.

China increased its investment in North Korea, along the border area such as the Dandung-Shinyiju region, the Hanggumpyong joint development area and the Rasun special economic zone.

Recently how close the Beijing-Pyongyang ties have become is amply demonstrated by the unusual activities new North Korean ambassador to China, Ji Jaerong, had engaged in last few months. Since his arrival in Beijing early this year, Ambassador Ji paid visits to many of the top level officials of the Party and the government.

After his presentation of credential to President Hu, he met in rapid succession Jia Qinglin, No.4 in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Li Changchun, No. 5, and finally Xi Jinping.

He also met Meng Jianju, the state councilor in charge of the public security, Liang Ganglie, the defense minister, as well as the minister of culture, the publisher of Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily. Ji’s activities were quite unusual given the diplomatic practice that no foreign ambassadors accredited to China met even a single member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Former American ambassador, John Huntsman during his tenure in Beijing never met anyone in the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

How can one explain China’s attitude toward North Korea?

Any effort to analyze China’s policy toward North Korea, its influence over Pyongyang, is like trying to solve a multidimensional puzzle. So far, many different versions of explanation have been presented. One can delineate three types.

The first type regards China as an almighty. This view argues that China does have predominant influence over North Korea. All you have to do is to ask the Chinese leader to place a call to Pyongyang and tell the North Korean leader to stop. Of course the view is naive.

But its message that putting pressure on Beijing is the key to solving the security dilemma in Korea may not be so naive.

The second type takes just the opposite view. It argues that China has little leverage over North Korea. It assumes that China has become a hostage to North Korea, a victim to the tyranny of the weak.

North Korea is too weak to ignore and at the same time too important to abandon. China is entrapped by North Korea even in unwelcome predicaments the latter has created. Here, the key lies not in Beijing but in Pyongyang.

The third type is more sophisticated. Basically, it argues that China does possess considerable leverage over North Korea but it has its own limitations. The limitations exist as China makes a cost-benefit analysis in employing its leverage on Pyongyang.

This view maintains that China is a rational actor doing meticulous calculation of its strategic interests. China does have the leverage but is constrained from exercising this leverage if the strategic calculation shows the cost outweighs the benefits.

The prescription is to increase China’s strategic interests to be compatible with those of the United States and its allies including South Korea.

My own view is a little different.

I believe that China’s policy to North Korea cannot be understood by the rational actor model alone. Certainly, like all other countries, China conducts strategic cost benefit analysis in making its foreign and security policy. Its North Korean policy is no exception.

But we have to consider other factors too.

These other factors are unique to China and North Korea and include their historical and traditional legacies, the shared identities of the ideology and the division, their strategic interests, and the domestic political dynamics. These make Sino-North Korean relations quite special and often appear opaque and at least less than rational to outsiders.

A single most obvious demonstration of the special ties between Pyongyang and Beijing can be observed when the North Korean leader visits China.

When Kim Jong-il visits Beijing, he meets all nine members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the highest collective ruling body in China.

Also when he goes on a tour in China, one of the standing committee members escorts him. No foreign heads of the state can expect such a special treatment.

One may argue that this is more an act of symbolism than anything of substance. But I believe it is more than a mere formality, more than just an expression of friendship and good will. It has been a tradition since the days of Kim Il-song, and continues to these days.

It stands as a testimony to the special historical bondages between the two neighboring socialist countries that in the words of Hu Jintao last year in his meeting with Kim Jong-il would continue generation after generation.

Of course, beside the shared solidarity and identity, the strategic interests China has over North Korea are also important.

China’s strategic interests in North Korea include the prospects of numerous North Korean refugees crossing the border into its Northeast provinces, the danger of losing North Korea as a strategic buffer, and the possibility of directly confronting the American forces along the border with a reunified Korea under the auspices of South Korea.

This is why China has been providing North Korea with generous assistance.

On the average, China’s economic assistance to North Korea constitutes about 90 percent of fuel and up to 40 percent of food North Korea imports from abroad. Also in the past few years China has accelerated its investment in North Korea.

In political and diplomatic areas, China stressing the need for maintaining stability in the Korean Peninsula defended North Korea in international community including the United Nations. Many pointed out that China’s stress on stability often implied embracing of and concessions to North Korea’s repeated brinkmanship tactics.

Looking ahead, it is not easy to predict how the relationship between China and North Korea will evolve in the future under the leadership of Xi and his fifth generation leadership.

Perhaps, in the near term, China will continue to support and patronize North Korea stressing that peace and stability is the paramount concern for all. China is likely to insist on this policy particularly while the power transition goes on and political fragility persists in North Korea.

This policy by China will make positive contributions in maintaining stability in the Korean Peninsula by restraining Pyongyang from engaging in excessively provocative actions.

But the emphasis on stability may eventually come into conflict with other strategic objectives China and other nations like the US and South Korea share.

The goal of denuclearization will be the most important. China pursues denuclearization as well as stability. But North Korea already declared itself as a nuclear weapons state. North Korea wants to keep the nuclear weapons capability and at the same time use it as a diplomatic leverage. Probably North Korea’s aspiration is another India.

But this will put China in a predicament. First of all, the United States and South Korea, among others, will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Second, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons capability will certainly have serious repercussions on and beyond the Korean Peninsula. The current debate on reintroducing the US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea reflects only one of the possible repercussions.

The other, somewhat extreme, could be a nuclear arms race involving South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan.

Whatever the repercussions might be, this will certainly put China in a serious security dilemma. While North Korea wants to have the cake and eat it too, China will be in a position not unlike the catch-22.

Yet, Xi Jinping would not likely to resolve China’s dualism in its relations with North any time soon. Xi’s policy is likely to be premised on the same three NOs; no refugees, no war, no collapse.

One of the keys will be whether China could persuade the new leadership in Pyongyang to adopt a policy of reform and opening. It is not certain if China could do this. It is far more uncertain if the new leader in Pyongyang will respect Xi’s advice.

As to the scenarios for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, one can think of four options; the acquiescence, the management of the status quo, the rollback, and the regime collapse. Of these, the first and the last do not seem to be feasible; only the second and third are realistic.

For now, the best policy option for the United States and South Korea is to continue to work closely with China under the new leadership in trying to persuade North Korea to choose the third option of rollback as a long-term goal while at the same time exerting efforts to prevent further deterioration of the situation. For this, diplomacy, not the force, will be the best approach.

That is why the resumption of the SPT is so important. It is important not only for tackling the North Korea’s nuclear conundrum but more importantly it is the best forum where the cold-war legacy of the Korean Peninsula could be resolved through collective and cooperative efforts by the US, China, and two Koreas as well as Japan and Russia.

It will be in this multilateral forum that works for a new regional order can begin. What Xi said in the past such as his comments on Chinese participation in the Korean War as just and a contribution to peace should not deter us from getting him actively involved in the search for denuclearized Korean Peninsula where joint efforts for peace and prosperity will set an example for the post post-cold war regional order. That next year in all the countries of the Six-Party Talks new leaders will come to power makes the prospect of peace-making and order-creating better than anytime in the past.

This page last updated May 21, 2011 jdb