For thousands of years the Chinese have thought of themselves as inhabiting the very center of the civilized world.
Foreigners were barbarians. The Chinese were satisfied to live in isolation from that inferior world, and only wanted the barbarians to leave them alone. In order to keep peace in their neighborhood, Chinese emperors would arrange tributary relations with neighboring states, who would acknowledge their supremacy in return for their protection. To prevent barbarian powers from ganging up on China, the Chinese would try to play off one barbarian against another. In the nineteenth century, Chinese scholar Wei Yuan referred to this long-standing balance-of-powers foreign policy as yiyizhiyi: “using barbarians to control barbarians.”
China’s ‘barbarian’ neighbors
Today, China’s closest neighbors to the east are the two Koreas, neither of which can be called a tributary state. The South Korean and Chinese economies are mutually dependent. In 2014, 6.1 million Chinese traveled to South Korea for shopping and entertainment, and 4 million Koreans chose China as their favorite tourism destination. South Koreans admire the economic progress Chinese have made and recognize their similar cultures, although they view China warily, especially in regard to China’s territorial claims on the East Sea. South Korean and Chinese leaders meet regularly.
North Korea, immediately bordering on China, has been a perennial problem for the Chinese. The two countries share similar political systems, although North Korea’s is dynastically inclined, and they were allies in the Korean War. However, North Korea’s economy has become almost totally dependent on China’s and the North Koreans are more suspicious than friendly toward the Chinese. Since assuming power in 2011, North Korea’s leader has never had a summit meeting with the Chinese leader. The Chinese are particularly upset that the North Koreans keep provoking their neighbors, especially with weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening the peace of the neighborhood.
For China, the only thing worse than having a trouble-making neighbor is having an American neighbor. North Korea may be a nuisance to China, but the United States is often seen as a threat. If North Korea collapses, unless China intervenes (against South Korean objections) it will fall into the hands of South Korea, an American ally. China entered the Korean War to keep Americans away from their border, and today China tolerates North Korea for the same reason.
Controlling the barbarians
How is China to deal with North Korea’s provocations, especially its nuclear provocations? China’s North Korea policy of verbal persuasion has not succeeded in slowing Pyongyang’s buildup of weapons of mass destruction. Even worse, after Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear and missile tests, South Korea has decided to consider putting an American Thaad anti-missile battery on its soil, a move that China considers to be a grave threat to its own security.
Rather than blaming North Korea for its provocations, China blames the US for threatening North Korea; in other words, blaming one barbarian for the actions of another. China’s proposed solution to the North Korea problem is for the US and North Korea, along with South Korea, Japan, and even Russia, to peacefully “negotiate” with North Korea.
Presumably, the idea would be that if the US agrees to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, withdraw its military forces from the Korean peninsula, and keep its nuclear weapons out of the Western Pacific (North Korea’s demands), then North Korea would agree to at least curtail its nuclear and missile programs. For China, an added benefit of such an agreement would be that without a threatening North Korea, there would also be less need for a US-South Korea-Japan military alliance, and less concern in Beijing about being encircled by barbarians.
Moreover, China would presumably preside over negotiations at the resumed Six Party Talks, thus gaining stature as a senior statesman who is above all this neighborhood squabbling. With more attention focused on the North Korea problem, less notice might be made of China’s moves into the East China Sea.
So far, neither North Korea nor the US has been sufficiently motivated to resume negotiations. The US is waiting for North Korea to make a substantial commitment to end its nuclear weapons program, and North Korea insists that any talks must be about mutual denuclearization. In the absence of movement toward a solution, and with the international community angered by North Korea’s latest moves, China has decided to put more pressure on North Korea by voting for a fifth round of UN sanctions.
These sanctions, severe as they may first appear, grant Beijing wide discretion in how much pressure it wants to put on its neighbor. North Korea’s front door to the world opens on the Chinese border. The US, South Korea, and the rest of the international community will have to look to China for success in reining in North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. On this issue, China is once again the center of the civilized world.
It is difficult to find anyone who believes that these latest sanctions will persuade the North Korean regime to relinquish its nuclear weapons, or even dissuade it from continuing to develop more weapons and long-range missiles on which to place them. Until that regime is unseated, it will almost certainly continue to pursue the “military-first” policy it adopted back in the 1960s under its founding Kim.
But if the third generation of the Kim family goes, North Korea may quickly fall into chaos, inviting the kind of international intervention that the Chinese fear. So how hard China should push its neighbor is a decision that requires the most delicate judgment. Hardly surprising then that China wishes the barbarians would solve this problem amongst themselves.
Dr. Kongdan Oh is a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.