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What role does China play in tensions between the United States and DPRK?

You might think that China was about to throw the DPRK under the bus, given widespread media reports the other day that President Xi Jinping gave a speech where he alluded to it as increasing tensions in the region (for example, Reuters). But thanks to a careful study of the statement, and the fact that the People’s Daily rebuked such misinterpretations the next day, we now know (h/t CTuttle) that the MSM and some others were at best taking Xi out of context.

Not that the desire for China to “do something” is lacking. Last week WaPo’s Anne Applebaum proposed that China gain in the world’s respect by cutting off supplies to Pyongyang and opening its border to refugees. Then on the past Sunday talking head circuit Sen. McCain and others were not that brutally specific but still called on China to “step up to the plate.”

Such discussions of course have been based on the mainstream narrative to the effect that the DPRK has been creating serious danger with its “provocations,” whereas the US has acted with restraint. The commenters and I have argued in two recent diaries (here and here, plus in scattered comments on other FDL posts) that the reverse is the case, that it is the US that has been doing the provoking. And there is now a detailed, carefully documented article at Counterpunch (h/t juliania) that makes the case for that understanding pretty definitive. For example,

the United States is working hard to persuade other nations to sanction the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank and is considering other ways in which it can bring about North Korea’s economic collapse. An unnamed U.S. State Department official remarked that there was still room for enlarging sanctions. “I don’t know what will succeed, but we haven’t ‘maxed out’; there is headroom, and we have to give it a try.”

U.S. officials have asked the European Union to sanction the Foreign Trade Bank, and further discussions are expected along those lines. Japan and Australia have already agreed to join the United States in sanctioning the bank, and Treasury Department official David Cohen and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have both asked China to do the same. President Obama made a personal phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging him to sanction the Foreign Trade Bank, and U.S. officials continue to pressure China, insisting that if China does not “crackdown” on North Korea, the U.S. will increase its military forces in Asia.

Another article published the next day generalizes the point.

But what about China, then? Is the pressure cited at the end of the above quote having an effect? Study of a Foreign Policy article reveals a mixed picture. At least below the level of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, “an increasing number of Chinese are calling for a tougher stance toward North Korea.” For example,

Deng Yuwen, formerly the deputy editor of the Communist Party journal Study Times, went further [than merely saying there should be pressure on the DPRK] in a controversial op-ed in late February in The Financial Times, where he argued that “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.” North Korea has shown that it is no longer useful as a buffer against United States influence, Deng maintained, and its fickle behavior makes it more a liability than an asset for China in the long term.

On the other hand, it may be telling that “Deng has been suspended from his job” since then. Although the article buys into the standard mistranslation of Xi’s recent speech noted at the beginning of this post, it is unable to give any real evidence that the Chinese leadership itself has deviated from the standard position that the DPRK is an ally. What one can say is that there is pressure on the leadership from below as well as from the US, much of it (although the article does not notice this) based on the same misunderstanding of the actual situation that informs the MSM narrative here. Perhaps that pressure is partly responsible for the fact that China went as far as it did in agreeing to UN Security Council Resolution 2094 last month, establishing further economic sanctions but no military option against Pyongyang.

But before evaluating whether or not that agreement is indicative of a trend in the Chinese attitude, we need to consider another element in the equation: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Most US discussions of the TPP from a leftist perspective, such as Jane Hamsher’s here about a year ago, have stressed the aspect that it will be “NAFTA on steroids,” a far more severe over-riding of local laws governing labor rights and the like than earlier international trade agreements entailed. However, and while there was some talk of actually including China in the TPP during the early days of the negotiations, recently there has been increasing recognition that at least in part the pact represents a means of reducing China’s economic influence in the region, or of forcing it to change its economic policies in order to remain competitive, as WaPo’s Howard Schneider wrote last fall.

It would seem that there are two opposing forces here. When Xi received that personal phone call from Obama he must have asked himself “who does this guy think he is, squeezing us and expecting us to take it out on our friends by squeezing them?”

That is a sketch of the forces at work in influencing China’s course with respect to the Korean peninsula. Just how it will all work out may be difficult to predict, but I wouldn’t put money on the DPRK-haters’ chances.

Photo by Renato Ganoza released under a Creative Commons license.