Here Is What Chinese Scholars Think about the North Korea Crisis

Chinese paramilitary guards stand in the snow at the Forbidden City in Beijing

China is best positioned to manage a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear crisis.

If many Chinese scholars cluster around that middle position, however, there are a few outliers identified in this survey, as well. Yan Xuetong [阎学通], for example, seems to starkly disagree with almost all his colleagues. He says China faces a choice: a nuclear North Korea that does not have hostile relations with China or a nuclear North Korea that does have a hostile relationship with China. Admitting that China has no way to force North Korea to denuclearize, Yan says that sanctions will only ensure that China and North Korea become adversaries. Taking up a similar thesis as Wang Xiaobo mentioned above, Yan mentions the possibility that China should extend nuclear security guarantees [核保护伞] to North Korea if it agrees to denuclearization. But he also says that Beijing might well have to simply accept a nuclear North Korea and even have to “actively embrace” [积极拉拢] a nuclear North Korea, so that it does not become an enemy. Dai Xu [戴旭] likewise thinks that the United States and Japan use the North Korean nuclear issue to create difficulties for China. He is similarly skeptical of sanctions, saying this will damage China-North Korean relations. He agrees with Yan that China (along with Russia) should offer a nuclear umbrella to North Korea.

A final group of Chinese scholars discussed in this survey holds the opposite view and contend that it is time to sever ties with North Korea. A scholar of this “camp” is Chu Shulong [楚树龙], who contends that “tolerating amounts to abetting” [姑息养奸]. Chu says that Pyongyang has deliberately made the Korean Peninsula more tense and crossed over Beijing’s “red lines,” damaging Chinese interests. He says China should severely restrict or even suspend aid to North Korea, as well as strengthen sanctions. As part of taking a “tough attitude” [严重态度], China must prepare for all contingencies, including a military conflict, Chu asserts. One other important Chinese academic is mentioned and this is Shen Zhihua [沈志华], who observes that China-North Korean relations have traditionally been “extremely unstable” [非常不稳定] and that Pyongyang has continuously exploited contradictions in Russia-China relations to serve its own interests.

Near the end of the survey, the author makes the candid statement that “it’s very difficult to discern whether or not scholarly opinion has an impact on Chinese foreign policies.” One may go a step further even and ask if this survey of Chinese scholarly views is truly comprehensive. Many noteworthy foreign policy experts are somehow omitted, for example Shen Dingli, Jin Canrong and Wang Jisi. Then, there are experts on North Korea that I have discussed in previous Dragon Eye pieces that are also not mentioned here, including Wang Junsheng or the well-known Zhang Liangui. There is the additional issue that much of the cited literature is a few years old and some of these scholars may well have altered their views given the fast pace of events, especially recently. Perhaps our Chinese postgraduate researcher (on whom we have been relying) should be asked to redraft this important survey? Surely, more work of this kind is necessary on both sides of the Pacific.

Given events of the last week, it is hard to be optimistic about the ongoing North Korea Crisis. However, a precursor to a negotiated way forward may well be a fuller understanding of Chinese assessments, since almost all agree that Beijing will be crucial to the design, diplomatic bargaining, implementation and verification of any deal that brings Northeast Asia back from the brink.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport RI. He does not tweet, since he is a scholar, but you can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Reuters