During Condoleezza Rice’s recent tour of north-east Asia to drum up support for the raft of sanctions that the UN security council has imposed on North Korea, China appeared to be both the weakest link but also the country with most leverage over Pyongyang. Yet relatively little is known about its approach to the nuclear crisis, other than that it has spent several years resisting Washington’s calls for stronger actions. Beneath this reluctance, however, lies a long-term strategy of integration across the China-North Korea border that is designed to replicate China’s own transformation into a more open and stable society and serve its own interests by promoting economic regeneration of the north-eastern provinces.
While Beijing shares Washington’s goal of denuclearising North Korea, historical links and geographical proximity mean its interests go well beyond the nuclear issue. This is most obvious for the region of China that borders North Korea. Under the planned economy this was a centre of heavy industry, but it experienced dramatic decline after Deng Xiaoping began the process of economic reform in the late 1970s. While coastal areas in the south boomed, frequent strikes and demonstrations by workers made this region a political flashpoint for a regime that still claims to protect the interests of the working class.
When Hu Jintao became China’s leader in 2002 with a mission to redress regional disparities, the prospect of creating a new market and points of access to the ocean for Chinese goods by developing North Korea’s economy and infrastructure engendered a different kind of attitude on the part of the Chinese from the kind of logic offered by the nuclear crisis. The fact that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had become a regular visitor to China and launched a package of Chinese-style market-oriented economic reforms that very same year was just as significant as Pyongyang’s nuclear standoff with Washington. [Full Text]