PAUL FRIJTERS. What does the North Korean situation say about China?

Sep 6, 2017

It is easy to get drawn into the drama of rockets fired over Japan, and massive hydrogen bombs tested by a North Korean regime that likes to threaten mass extinction of its enemies, particularly with the tweeter-in-chief responding in kind. I worry though that the real game is in China, because the suspicion is that China has helped NK develop its technology, and one has to wonder what could drive the Chinese leadership to do such a thing.  

I know that the NK regime ostensibly has cut many previous ties with China and that China is hinting in various fora (via HK and at the UN) that it is prepared to put more economic sanctions on the NK regime. So if China is at the same time helping the NK regime with developing its weapons, then it is playing a double game – on the one hand actively helping a near neighbour develop very powerful nuclear technology, and on the other hand presenting a ‘face’ of distress to the outside world.

What are the indications then that China is helping the NK regime? The first indication is that, almost surely, some outside power is helping NK. Consider the indications of that help, as discussed by a couple of Forbes-speaking defence analysts. For one, parts of the weaponry that NK is now displaying apparently are Pakistani/Chinese, in particular the biconal top of the rockets. Second, the trucks from which the launches take place are apparently also Chinese design. Third, the technology needed to master a hydrogen bomb is advanced, and whilst NK has failed for decades to master nuclear technology, progress in the last 24 months has been spectacular. Fourth, its tests with inter-continental ballistic missiles not only shows rapid progress following a long history of failed tests, but seem to require help with monitoring the effects of these tests. Things like how the rocket reacts to the heat of re-entry into orbit have to be measured close to where re-entry takes place, such as via boats in the area.

So, either NK have suddenly found a rich vein of brilliant domestic scientists, or an outside power is really helping them. Pakistan could have helped NK by shipping technology and scientists to them, but it is much easier and far less risky for China given the shared border. Besides, Pakistan is unlikely to defy the US and the rest of the world in helping a rogue state (a lot to lose, little to gain). Similarly, I find the Russia-is-helping story unlikely, particularly since the Russians prefer to be paid to come and help rather than give secret technology away for pittance. The Russian regime won’t trust NK, nor does it have much use for a nuclear NK. The same goes for other medium powers whose names get bandied around, such as Myanmar or Iran: they simply are unlikely to want to run the risk, nor are they in a position to help to that degree.

The more likely story is hence that the Chinese regime is actively helping the NK regime with its rocket and atomic program, concealing this help behind a smokescreen of admonishing statements. It is precisely because they would be afraid of leaks that I doubt the Chinese would use any middle-men.

Though we cannot know for sure, it is important to consider the implications of the possibility that the Chinese regime is actively helping NK with its weapons program. The main question has to be what it says about the Chinese leadership that they are doing this.

One theory is that they want to distract attention away from the South China Sea. Another is that they are trying to use the NK issue as leverage to reduce US power in the region, simply by equipping enemies of the US with dangerous weaponry, forcing the US to weaken itself. Their preferred scenario under that second possibility is probably that the US, Japan, and South Korea keep paying the NK regime extortion money indefinitely, heralding an era of organised nuclear blackmail by small states.

A third theory is that the Chinese leadership wants to prevent the collapse of the NK regime and that they have intel that the position of the 3rd Kim was more precarious than it seemed 2 years ago. Desperate to avoid the visible collapse of a regime that looks like the Chinese regime (ie a collectivist regime), they propped it up.

The first two reasons are less worrying for one may see them as ‘normal’ power-politics. Just as the US has allowed Israel a nuclear bomb, so too would China have its own ‘pets’ in the regions that matter to China.

It is the third reason that worries me the most, ie the possibility that the Chinese regime is propping up the NK regime because it does not want to create a precedence for collectivist regime failure. It would suggest that the Chinese leadership is worried about its own position.

To Western outsiders, the Chinese central leadership in Beijing seems firmly entrenched. It has in the last few years embarked on several programs to consolidate its power, reducing the power of cities and provinces. Inside China, the top of the communist party has cracked down on Internet freedoms, has purged many internal dissenters within the Communist Party via its anti-corruption campaigns, and has centralised taxation and ministerial powers.

Outside China, the top has started an expansionary foreign campaign of building roads and presence in the old Silk Route, has adopted plans to dam many of the rivers that flow to its neighbours but start inside the borders of China, and has developed a military presence in the South China Sea. The top has also supported various (semi-)dictatorial regimes in the world in exchange for economic access (eg Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Myanmar). These activities have brought it in low-level conflict with some of the other regional players (India, Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines) over territories, water, and trading routes.

One can understand all the other foreign adventures as normal expansionary activities of a new superpower flexing its muscles and building a presence in the world, sometimes re-establishing an old Chinese presence, sometimes safeguarding mineral resources, and sometimes just spending lots of surplus foreign cash. But arming an NK regime would be a level up in terms of adventurism. It is almost American in its disregard for consequences. So maybe there is more to the Chinese regime than meets the eye.

I have worked enough years on Chinese issues to have some idea of what I don’t know. And what I don’t know is how secure the current top of the communist party actually is. They seem secure, but the Western media would be the last to know if it was not secure, so perhaps the internal struggle is much more fierce than is visible to outsiders. Perhaps the current President Xi Jiping wants to stay longer than the 10 years that has been the unofficial maximum for any leader after Mao. Perhaps he wants to break the rotation system that has kept the peace inside the Communist Party till now.

One should not make the mistake of looking at Chinese political strife with expectations of nascent democracy, or business-lead reforms, and thus expect internal struggle to come from communist rulers holding out against reformist business elites. That is not how China works: the top of all walks of life in China are in the same network, so business leaders are communist party leaders and vice versa. Democracy is also not a big thing in China. Democracy to the Chinese communist party is like cutting one’s own body in three parts and hoping they work together in a power-balance: a total fantasy. Nothing can break away from the single network and anything worthwhile outside that network is brought into it.

But precisely because they are all part of the same network with no competing independent centres, in-fighting is both exceedingly subtle and exceedingly brutal. When the Chinese fight their internal fights, both the own population and the rest of the world are entirely expendable, for losing the internal fight means total disgrace to the loser. So when it comes to infighting, all options are on the table, including risking nuclear wars between neighbours, just to improve the own standing within the network.

Bo Xilai was the last high-ranking loser of such in-fighting. The 30 million or so dead from the Great Leap Forward around 1960 were really the result from internal strife at the top. Ditto for the Cultural Revolution or the nearly 100 million deaths in the rebellions and famines of the 19th century. Oh yes, when the Chinese political network fractures, the consequences are disastrous. With the Chinese economy and military far more powerful now than it was at the time of Mao or in the 19th century, the danger to the rest of the world of Chinese infighting is concomitantly bigger.

Hence I am worried by what I don’t know: is the struggle for dominance inside the Communist Party in China causing the current top leaders to be reckless when it comes to NK? And if so, are the latest hydrogen tests an embarrassment for the top leaders or are they reaping rewards inside the Party for their stance? We wouldn’t know, but either one of those is a real worry.

What I do know is that the Western media and most Western commentators have no clue about power politics in China. They repeat each other’s bleats, such as the fantasy that the Chinese leadership would care about refugees from North Korea in the case of a conflict, or that it would fear the economic pain of severing economic ties with NK. Both are totally irrelevant to the Chinese leadership, no more than blips: compared to how many Chinese inside China are moved around, the NK refugee possibility is irrelevant, and there is more economic change per year than the entire value of trade with NK. So neither of that would worry them. They think bigger than that.

The only consideration that the Chinese leadership will have regarding NK is internal politics. That is why the possibility that the Chinese leadership is reckless enough to have armed a volatile neighbour with highly sophisticated and deadly atomic weapons fills me with dread: not merely for what the NK regime might do with those weapons, but also for what it says about internal Chinese politics. Compared to either of those, the sanity of the tweeter-in-chief is a minor worry.

Paul Frijters is a Professor of Wellbeing and Economics in London. For many years he was the Research Director of the Rural to Urban Migration in China and Indonesia project, an international cooperation that collected longitudinal data in both countries. He also taught on the economics of China for several years at the University of Queensland.

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