China faces growing domestic pressure over N.K. policy
Anti-Pyongyang sentiment deepens; prospect of policy readjustment increases
Published : 2013-02-18 20:29
Updated : 2013-02-18 20:29
Anti-Pyongyang sentiment in China appears to be escalating in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test last week with Chinese public expressing their displeasure online and offline, calling their neighbor “ungrateful and shameless.”
Experts noted the deteriorating public opinion could lead Beijing to reevaluate the strategic value of North Korea and readjust its policy approaches toward it, although it would not shift its basic policy line in the short term.
Rare protests condemning the North’s recent nuclear test were reportedly held in China’s northeastern province of Liaoning and the southern Guangdong province. Demonstrators held up placards stressing their desire for peace and protest of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Their anger was more straightforwardly expressed in online communities including Weibo, China’s largest social networking site. Some reportedly argued that China’s “lukewarm” stance over North Korea’s provocations is a “humiliating” diplomacy while others called on Beijing to cut off aid to the North.
Despite unprecedented last-ditch efforts by China, the North carried out its third atomic test in its northeast Punggye-ri test site on Feb. 12.
Some analysts said the test amounted to a “slap in the face” for Beijing as it came as Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping was preparing to take over the presidential post from Hu Jintao in March.
The test also came as Chinese people celebrated its weeklong Spring Festival, the country’s biggest annual holiday.
Observers said the new Chinese leadership could take into account the worsening public opinion over Pyongyang when it discusses its foreign policy line at the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group of the Communist Party, which could convene in March or April.
Currently chaired by President Hu Jintao, the FALSG is a central decision-making organ that proposes policies and gives suggestions to the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau.
China experts said Beijing might not make any critical policy shift, as the North still remains a vital diplomatic card, particularly when the Sino-U.S. rivalry intensifies. But the Chinese leadership might find it difficult to ignore growing public discontent over North Korean provocations.
“Beijing might not consider a fundamental shift in its policy toward the North. But amid growing anti-Pyongyang sentiment, gaps between its policy and public calls for a tougher stance would widen,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.
“After all, it would be increasingly difficult for Beijing to turn a deaf ear to the growing public criticism against North Korean provocations.”
Jin Qiangyi, director of the Center for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji City, echoed Ahn’s view.
“The (Chinese) public does not want China to be the only friend of an evil regime, and we’re not even recognized by North Korea as a friend,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Times last week.
“For the first time, the Chinese government has felt the pressure of public opinion not to be too friendly with North Korea.”
Joo Jang-hwan, professor of Chinese studies at Hanshin University, said that the protests could be Beijing’s warning message to Pyongyang.
“China can control all demonstrations. The reason why Beijing left the protests proceeding could be that it intended to send some message to the North,” he said.
“After all, Beijing would make strategic choices over North Korea while carefully gauging the external conditions and costs such as Japan’s reactions to the nuclear test and Washington’s stances over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” he said.
Apart from the exacerbated public sentiment, Beijing appears to face a tougher reality outside of the country. Following the North’s nuclear test, calls have mounted for South Korea to step up security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan.
Analysts said for Washington, it is an opportune time to forge a triangular security relationship with its allies, Seoul and Tokyo, which could be capitalized on to keep a rising, assertive China in check.
On top of it, some security experts here started to call for Seoul’s participation into the U.S.-led global missile defense system, arguing that Pyongyang’s missile capability coupled with its nuclear technology should be better deterred by stepped-up security cooperation with the U.S.
Seoul has been reluctant to join the MD program as it could provoke China while Japan has been active in its participation. Seoul, instead, plans to establish a low-tier missile defense system.