US, China scholars exchange views of each other, North Korea

August 03, 2017 08:30
North Korea dominated the discussions between the American and Chinese scholars. Photo: Reuters

At a time when the US-China relationship seems to be drifting, with the very clear potential of a steep downward slide, possibly sparked by events in North Korea, it is encouraging to learn that experts from think tanks in both countries have worked together for the past year to analyze knotty issues besetting the relationship and have now published parallel reports with their observations.

In July, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. launched a major report on US-China relations written by a group of experts drawn from some of the leading American think tanks. At the same time, a parallel Chinese report, released in May, was also posted on the CSIS website.

John Hamre, CSIS president, disclosed that Fu Ying, chair of the foreign relations committee of China’s National People’s Congress, approached him in May 2016 and proposed that scholars in both countries should take a look at the bilateral relationship. In the end, it was decided to focus on five aspects of the relationship: economic relations, Asia-Pacific security issues, military relations, global governance and domestic political issues.

If any one issue dominated the discussion at the launch, it was North Korea. Both the Americans and the Chinese were highly critical of its leader, Kim Jong-un but, clearly, the American side felt that China was not doing enough to put pressure on Pyongyang.

One Chinese speaker, Zhang Tuosheng, director of the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said it was not in China’s interests for North Korea to become a de facto nuclear state.

Another, Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said, “It’s not easy for China to cut off all the trade relations with the DPRK overnight.” Of course, it has been years since the United Nations Security Council started to impose various sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, not yesterday or the day before.

Still, Zhu made it clear that China would not fight alongside North Korea against the US again, as it did in the early 1950s. He ridiculed the idea that if the US were to “kick Kim’s ass militarily, China will reach out and help him”.

But the question is what China is doing to stop North Korea from pursuing its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The US recently imposed sanctions on a small Chinese bank, the Bank of Dandong, which it accused of laundering money for North Korea. China immediately criticized the move as the US using domestic laws to impose “long-arm jurisdiction” on Chinese companies or individuals.

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at CSIS, said of the sanctions against the small bank in a city on the North Korean border: “It really goes to this issue of banks operated in northeast China that are facilitating North Korea’s access to the international financial system.”

Washington may well take further action against Chinese entities by imposing “secondary sanctions” on companies that, according to Glaser, “are facilitating North Korea’s access to the international financial system”. And, she may well have added, Chinese banks that China has so far protected.

US President Donald Trump, in an unusually severe tweet Saturday, castigated China because, he said, “they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.”

Trump added: “We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem.”

Trump’s latest tweets came the day after North Korea tested another intercontinental ballistic missile, one that experts said put the continental US within range of a strike, further provoking Washington.

Although Hamre said that scholars on both sides were acting independently and did not represent their governments, it is clear where their sympathies lie. For one thing, Fu Ying, who had proposed these papers in the first place, is a high level Chinese government official who used to be a vice foreign minister.

There was at least one thing that the scholars, Chinese and Americans, agreed upon. The US-China relationship is enormously important and the two countries should strive to avoid becoming adversaries but to attempt to build patterns of cooperation in every area.

The usefulness of having such scholars exchanging viewpoints is that they tend to be well connected with their governments. It is of vital importance, therefore, that they not only analyze situations from their own country’s perspective but that they understand how their opposite numbers think.

After all, how the two countries relate to each other in the decades to come will affect not only the people of the two countries but also the whole of humanity.

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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.