Did Xi Snub North Korea in Boao Speech?

‘Tis the season for North Korea to escalate its rhetoric, and recent threats from the Hermit Kingdom have many wondering if China is growing frustrated with its longtime ally. President and CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech at the Boao Forum for Asia yesterday, and western media coverage has focused on subtle hints in the script indicating concern with North Korea’s behavior. The Washington Post reports:

Responding to regional worries over North Korea’s bellicose threats, China on Sunday expressed concern and what appeared to be veiled criticism of its longtime ally.

“No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping at an economic forum in Hainan province. Avoiding mentioning North Korea by name, Xi said, “While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.”

[...]China — long seen as a key factor propping up the regime in Pyongyang — recently has shown signs of frustration after North Korea ignored its pleas not to carry out a recent nuclear test.

Bloomberg explains why Xi’s comments should be interpreted as directed at North Korea, despite the fact that he didn’t mention the country by name:

“While President Xi didn’t refer to North Korea, it is fair” to interpret his comments as directed toward the Korean situation, said Fang Xiuyu, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University. “Xi’s remarks are the most decisive comments so far from the Chinese side of the issue.”

Xi’s speech was covered from a similar angle elsewhere in the western press. However, Xi’s indirect reference to North Korea appears to be a footnote in a larger discourse dealing more directly with China’s peaceful development and its role in maintaining rapport with its neighbors in the region. Coverage from the Global Times seems to show Xi’s emphasis on continuity in regional diplomacy:

President Xi Jinping said China will make contributions toward peace and development in Asia and the world at an international forum that opened on Sunday.

China will vigorously promote development and prosperity in both Asia and the world, Xi said when delivering a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2013 in Boao, a coastal town in south China’s Hainan Province.

“Countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, should all contribute their share in maintaining and enhancing peace,” Xi said.

[...]Xi also said China will continue to properly handle differences and frictions with relevant nations.

While upholding its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, China will maintain good relations with its neighbors, as well as maintain overall peace and stability in the region, he said.

A post from All Things Nuclear looks at recent foreign and domestic coverage of China’s stance on North Korea to argue that the U.S. media is exaggerating a possible shift in Chinese foreign policy:

There is no visible sense that China’s propaganda machinery is preparing the Chinese public for major events on the peninsula or for a change in Chinese policy. There is little sense of emergency or crisis. [...]

The main Chinese themes on North Korea have not changed as a result of the current situation. China would like to see a relaxation of tensions, renewed regional dialog and economic reform. They do not appear to believe there is a high risk of armed conflict. They argue sanctions are counterproductive and the United States should engage directly with the leaders of North Korea at a high level in order to provide the sense of security they now seek through nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The one change repeated to me by several Chinese colleagues this week is China now believes North Korea is determined to build a functional nuclear deterrent. They blame the United States for that development. It is, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “regrettable.” But there is no apparent justification for assuming it will be a turning point for Chinese foreign policy.