China Moves Further Away from Global Legitimacy


By Mona Fang, BASC Research Assistant

With the renewal of North and South Korean tensions, it seems all though all the nations are scrambling to find solutions with the exception of the one country whose actions could really make a difference. Despite China’s geographic, economic and political closeness to North Korea and various forms of public persuasion employed by national leaders, Chinese government officials have not only remain resistant to demands of greater Chinese involvement in the crisis, but also continue to justify their non-interventionist approach, placing themselves further and further away from the path towards becoming a respected global leader.

Historically, China’s foreign policy towards its unpredictable neighbor, and really any controversial country, can be described as accommodating at best, or put more harshly, appeasement. Although the lack of a formal peace treaty to conclude the 1950-1953 Korean War between the two nations mean that technically North and South Korea are still at war, the two sides have avoided open warfare, a “peaceful” coexistence, marked by intermittent skirmishes for the past half century. An overview of North and South Korean conflict has revealed the occurrence of several military clashes, often instigated by the unstable and unpredictable North that seemed dangerously close to the beginnings of another open war. More recently, conflict between the two in the past year flared up with the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, and the death of 46 sailors in late March.

An investigation conducted by the South Korean government two months later led officials to conclude that the cause was a North Korean torpedo fired from a “midget” submarine. In addition to public condemnation, South Korean retaliation took the form of cutting back trade with the North. Tensions continued to mount as nearly a hundred thousand North Korean protesters gathered to condemn the South Korea accusation as intentionally creating cross-border tension between the two nations. In spite of repeated demands from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. to publicly censure North Korea and take an active approach in resolving the crisis, China chose not to back UN Security Council action against the country and instead questioned the legitimacy and accuracy of the investigation reports, adhering to traditional Chinese policy of neglect and effectively leaving the growing crisis to simmer.

Then, in late November, North Korean soldiers fired dozens of shells at a South Korean island, killing two of the nation’s soldiers.In an attempt to justify their actions, the North Korean government pointed to South Korea’s previous firing of test shots in the region, despite South Korean insistence that none such shots had touched North Korean soil. This latest skirmish around Yeonpyeong Island, a mere miles away from the Northern Limit Line, has once again drawn the attention of world powers like the U.S. and Japan and mobilized global leaders to attempt to resolve the conflict with the same strategy that evidently was a diplomatic failure: indirect pressure on North Korea that is contingent on China’s involvement. U.S. efforts have included a phone call from President Obama to President Hu Jintao and “sharp criticism” of China from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. While Chinese response has been one of typical hesitation and cozy diplomacy as indicated by a recent meeting between top government official Dai Bingguo and the Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, global leaders should consider that perhaps such a lukewarm response from China is a mere reflection of the unwillingness of the U.S. and other world leaders to devote a substantial amount of time and effort in pressuring China to, in turn, pressure its North Korean ally.

Regardless of who in the global community has the greatest responsibility and most important role to play in the situation between North and South Korea, China’s projected image of an increasingly influential economic giant that has been continuously reluctant to exert its leverage for purposes beyond its own self-interests is not only to the detriment of the entire global community but also clearly not doing anything in the way of establishing China’s desired status as a global leader. North Korea and their actions against their neighbor to the south have presented numerous occasions for China move towards attaining the coveted legitimacy of a true world power and expand the foundations for their growing influence beyond that of pure economic might. However, instead of taking advantage of these opportunities, Chinese officials continue to pursue an outdated and counterproductive policy of non-intervention in an era of global connectivity, feeding a growing globally accepted belief that China, despite their modern economic developments, is still centuries behind with respect to its attitudes foreign policy and international relations.


Berkeley APEC Study Center

About Berkeley APEC Study Center

The Berkeley APEC Study Center at the University of California, Berkeley, conducts multidisciplinary research on political, economic, and business trends in the Asia-Pacific, especially related to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Our primary mission is to produce and disseminate useful knowledge to decision makers in both the public and private spheres to facilitate the creation of mutually beneficial cooperation in the business, academic, and policymaking communities.

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