Why China is reversing its position on N Korea

March 01, 2016 08:54
Wang Yi (left) said at a news conference with John Kerry that the US and China will have more and more common interests, and therefore their areas of cooperation will increase. Photo: AFP

The visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the United States illustrates the seemingly schizophrenic relationship between the two countries.

On one hand, clear progress was made on joint action at the United Nations regarding North Korea, which has violated numerous Security Council resolutions by its recent nuclear test and rocket launch.

On the other hand, differences over the South China Sea remain as deep as ever.

And, on the heels of Wang’s departure from Washington, the US State Department condemned China on human rights.

On Thursday last week, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, announced that the US had tabled a draft Security Council resolution on North Korea “that, if adopted, would break new ground and represent the strongest set of sanctions imposed ... in more than two decades”.

China’s response was an editorial in the Global Times newspaper headlined “Harsher sanctions on NK are inevitable”.

Interestingly, only weeks ago the US and China were blaming each other for failure to halt North Korea’s nuclear program.

It is hoped that the two will now work in tandem rather than at cross purposes where Pyongyang is concerned.

Differences remain, but that is to be expected.

The US recently shifted its stance and agreed to return to the China-led six-party talks.

But China wants the US to talk with North Korea not only about denuclearization but also about a peace treaty to formally end the Korean war, during which the Chinese fought on the North Korean side.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear that Washington will not talk to Pyongyang about a peace treaty until the nuclear issue is first resolved but will do so afterward.

China is obviously concerned about the rapid development of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

But China is still insisting on propping up the North Korean regime to prevent Seoul from becoming the capital of a unified Korea, allied to the US, and so won’t accept any sanctions that might lead to the collapse of the regime.

Beijing also wants to keep its relationship with the US from worsening.

The US Senate recently passed a bill to rename the street on which the Chinese Embassy in Washington stands and change its address from 3505 International Place NW to 1 Liu Xiaobo Plaza, after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is serving an 11-year prison term in China.

President Barack Obama is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

That at least is one incentive for China to improve relations with the Obama administration.

Wang, during his visit, reassured the American public that it has nothing to fear from China.

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he dismissed the notion that China would become a major rival of the US.

“To surmise that China will become a major rival of the US and even supersede the US is a false proposition,” he said.

He also reassured his listeners that China would assume greater international responsibility in tackling global and regional issues such as Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan.

That is the kind of language the US likes to hear from China.

Washington wants a rising China that behaves responsibly and acts as a partner in resolving issues.

At a joint news conference with Kerry, Wang predicted the US and China will have more and more common interests, and therefore their areas of cooperation will increase.

That is a pragmatic approach.

Beijing should create more areas of common interest in which the two countries can work together.

One obvious area is Taiwan.

Instead of calling on the US to “oppose Taiwan independence”, China should take positive steps to pursue a dialogue with Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party, both now and after Tsai Ying-wen assumes the island's presidency in May.

Even more important, China has to ease up on the repression that has been the hallmark of the last few years.

On the last day of Wang’s visit to the US, China put detained human rights lawyer Zhang Kai on television to “confess” his crime of helping Christians in Wenzhou resist government orders to remove crosses from buildings.

"I really regret doing these things, I feel very remorseful," Zhang said, without benefit of a trial or a verdict.

The US condemned the Chinese move, with a State Department official saying “such confessions are counter to the standards of a rule of law”.

Domestic repression in China is becoming more and more blatant.

That will make the job of Wang to win friends for Beijing increasingly difficult.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.