Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Beijing attracted a wave of commentary fixated upon the question of whether the new Secretary of State had sold out by accepting Xi Jinping’s linguistic formulation of U.S.-China relations.
Tillerson’s messaging to Xi on the North Korea issue took second place to this question, or third, if we count the many essays expressing frustration with Tillerson’s self-imposed segregation from the normal press corps.
In any case, not enough attention was granted to a more important and interesting pursuit: essays and editorials published in Chinese before and during Tillerson’s visit, all of which provide insight into China’s approach to the North Korean issue.
This article will try, partially, to remedy the imbalance, and to demonstrate a handful of the problems facing the Trump administration as it tries to calibrate how far China is willing to go in restraining North Korea.
Regardless of Tillerson’s background or his unlikely path to becoming Secretary of State, the appearance of virtually any new U.S. Secretary of State in East Asia was unlikely to force the Chinese government to suddenly change its public messaging on the North Korea issue. And indeed, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks at the highly scripted Party Congress in early March set the tone for the Spring.
China is advocating a “dual suspension (双暂停)” and “dual-track process (双轨并行)” approach. “Dual suspension” means that the U.S. and ROK halt their joint military exercises in return for a cessation of North Korean missile and nuclear testing; “dual-track process” means that the U.S. and North Korea pursue a comprehensive peace treaty alongside talks on denuclearization.
The fact that neither the U.S. or North Korea are in the least interested in either of these approaches is immaterial: the point is that by advocating these steps, China can be seen as a constructive big power, one that urges reasonable solutions that, in the unlikely event of implementation, would also require very little from China. The outcomes would coincide happily with China’s national interest, and require a minimum of political, military, or capital investment.
BLAMING WASHINGTON FOR NORTH KOREA’S NUKES
Analyses published in the Chinese media typically advance the idea that U.S.-North Korean confrontation is the key problem in the region, and invariably call the North Korean nuclear issue a response purely to American pressure.
A Huanqiu Shibao (known in English at the Global Times) editorial on the 13 March was a good case in point. It indicated a kind of moral parity of deterrence between the two Koreas. The authors noted that Pyongyang’s anxieties were expressed in colorful language, but that they were a logical response to a “fierce and teeth-gnashing struggle” with Seoul.
Analyses published in the Chinese media typically advance the idea that U.S.-North Korean confrontation is the key problem in the region
Like many other essays, the Huanqiu editorial of 13 March contained a certain amount of sympathy for Pyongyang’s system. The piece complained not about North Korea’s fervent embrace of the rhetoric of pre-emptive strikes, but instead took issue with South Korean media coverage of one aspect of the drills:
“In the South Korean media, the prospect of “sending special forces to infiltrate the enemy’s rear areas,” the notion of implementation of a “beheading” of the North Korean leader, and the common descriptions of “North Korean regime collapse” seem to indicate the media’s belief that such stories can impart an enjoyable feeling to a considerable number of readers.”
This extract of the editorial was not included in the official English-language translation – there are several possible reasons for this.
First, it may have been omitted due to the general aversion to stirring foreign speculation about China’s intentions in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang. Secondly, North Korean diplomats in China also tend to complain to the PRC Foreign Ministry as well as to the newspaper in question if they feel that discussion of their leadership has been unfavorable.
It is also interesting to note the implication in the writing that South Koreans are as bloodthirsty as their Northern counterparts; now that the ROK gets a daily beating over the THAAD issue in the Chinese state press, there would be no problem with this assertion making its way over the translation wall and into English.
And finally, the language denouncing rehearsals for “decapitation strikes” ultimately mirrored that from Pyongyang, where on 27 March, the Korean People’s Army published a dense denunciation of what it said was a tripling from the previous year of American special forces squads in South Korea preparing to assassinate Kim Jong Un.
In the event that Chinese readers did not get the point, the title of the Huanqiu editorial made the case in a pithy fashion: “Huge U.S.-ROK military pressure causes Pyongyang to more tightly grip its nuclear weapons.” (The English title was far more anodyne: “Seoul shares fate with Pyongyang, not Washington.”)
Casual readers of the tabloid in China are thus armed with yet more indirect justification for North Korean nuclear weapons, which appear to be less dangerous to China’s national interests than U.S.-ROK military drills.
ANGER AND VULGARITY
As everyone knows, Rex Tillerson cut a timorous figure and took far too few questions from the press on his journey to Beijing. This is unfortunate, because it means we were denied his answer to the following hypothetical question on 18 March:
Mr. Secretary, an editorial published yesterday in a leading Chinese foreign affairs tabloid said that China was tired of ‘wiping ass’ for the U.S. and South Korea on the North Korean nuclear issue. Do you have a response to that complaint?
The editorial in question was published on 17 March, and its bathroom language (“擦屁股”) has the double meaning of “to clean up someone else’s mess.” The editorial completely ignored Tillerson’s remarks about the North Korea issue made in Seoul and portrayed China as the adult in a room of squabbling children. The point was also clear that China did not want to be left with the mess of North Korean collapse by an American administration prone to walking away from problems of its own devising.
The language denouncing rehearsals for “decapitation strikes” ultimately mirrored that from Pyongyang
But there was evidence of a state-sponsored pique at the U.S. over issues seemingly far apart from military drills and the ubiquitous discourse of opposition to THAAD, about which the Huanqiu Shibao noted on 17 March that there was no way that China would ever change its position.
KIM JONG NAM’S MURDER: AN AMERICAN PLOT?
The conventional wisdom has it that the Chinese government is upset with North Korea over the brazen public murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur. Yet Chinese state media discourse has been quite cautious over the matter, only officially identifying Kim Jong Nam as the victim on 10 March, and prior to that time, referring to the “case of the death of a son of the Kim family.”
The Chinese official internet has even been permissive of the North Korean suggestion that the whole thing was a South Korean-U.S. plot. (Why either Seoul or Washington would wish to kill a potential reformer in exile in the process of piling opprobrium on Pyongyang or creating further problems for DPRK overseas operations is never explained, naturally.)
But the injection of some confusion over the case, and the prevention of public outrage at the alleged use of VX nerve agent in the killing, seems to have part of the goal.
Thus the North Korean Embassy in Beijing’s press conference on 16 March was covered more or less credulously in Chinese media, and the internet commentary on the story was cultivated toward sympathy for the North Korean case. The top voted comment on the Huanqiu Shibao’s story on the North Korean press conference praised the Embassy for “hitting the nail on the head” that the incident was “a U.S.-ROK plot” whose “main victim was DPRK-Malaysian relations.”
The second-most voted comment on the story spun into well-worn tracks of “whataboutism,” reminding readers that U.S. actions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the very fact of the U.S. alliance with the hated Japanese, stripped Washington of any moral standing to label North Korea as a state sponsor of terror.
The conventional wisdom has it that the Chinese government is upset with North Korea over the brazen public murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur
Ten days later, these comments had been scrubbed in favor of top comments berating the DRPK for brandishing nuclear talk at every available opportunity, to the detriment of China’s national interest. The malleability of online discourse in China can shape things favorably for the DPRK, but the country has hardly been given a free pass in China’s nationalistic online environment.
Parsing the public pronouncements of Xi Jinping, North Korean state organs, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry, of course, ought to play an important role in any comprehensive analysis of the North Korea issue, and in understanding the strategic direction of Sino-North Korean relations.
But what we often miss in following these sources is the public context in which they take place.
The diplomatic current followed by the Chinese Communist Party is not always working in harmony with the small tempests it looks to create – and more often to quell – online among China’s 700 million internet users and consumers of news. The Party has to insulate itself from implications that it has suffered a major loss, for instance, with the death of Kim Jong Nam.
Although they are new to political leadership, Rex Tillerson and whatever new South Korean government emerges from the coming electoral scrum in Seoul are hardly children needing supervision in their dealings with North Korea. The foreign affairs tabloid editor Hu Xijin is therefore obviously aiming at a domestic audience when he says China is tired of “ass-wiping” for the ROK and the U.S.
Naturally, it would be helpful to the new Secretary of State in responding to such insults if he had a proper spokesperson, a full bracket of undersecretaries, and a coherent public relations strategy that went beyond support for walls and Islamophobia. But, like expecting that the U.S. might gain some strategic advantage from throwing out its long-standing, if often formalistic, support for human rights in China, this is probably too much to ask.
The recent minor insults and fits of pique demonstrated in Chinese state media and among state-approved commenters online toward the U.S. on the North Korea issue do not augur some coming immense policy shift within the halls of power at Zhongnanhai when it looks toward Pyongyang. But they do indicate the malleability of China’s public North Korea discourse.
They also remind us that there are much heavier rhetorical guns which might be displayed in the event that the other shoe drops and U.S. secondary sanctions are levied more comprehensively on Chinese firms doing business in North Korea. Thus far, the rift between the U.S. and China on the North Korea issue has remained muted, but it has the potential to rapidly become a gaping chasm in the public sphere in China, if Xi Jinping and his colleagues decide it is in their interest to do so.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. State Department