Beijing’s pubic reaction to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island has been, not unsurprisingly, muted. It has expressed concern and called for both sides to show restraint but said little more. In that regard, the situation is similar to the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March. Beijing then refused to join the international condemnation of North Korea for being behind the attack, taking advantage of the fig leaf that Pyongyang’s denial of responsibility afforded it.
Yet this latest incident provides a sterner test of Beijing’s backing for Pyongyang. For one, North Korea has not denied it shelled the island, though it claims that South Korea fired on it first. Chinese state media has been careful not to adjudicate on that claim, describing the incident as an exchange of fire. But Pyongyang may be testing the limits of Beijing’s support just as much as it is testing South Korea and Washington’s support of Seoul.
Beijing’s long-term strategy has been to draw North Korea into its economic orbit, with an assumption that a some point foreign policy will follow as the economics start to make cooperation rather than provocation North Korea’s underlying interest in dealing with its neighbors. Despite the sanctions imposed by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo biting North Korea’s economy, that point is still far off. Meanwhile, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is gambling that he can rely on China’s continuing support for as long as stability on the Korean peninsula is more important to Beijing than the collapse of his regime, with that stability including the dynastic succession of power to his son, Kim Jong Un. Kim the elder is also gambling that China won’t want to be seen to being pushed by other countries into taking a harder line with him.
Those are both fine lines — for both countries. Beijing won’t want its power and influence in the region to look weak, and especially when it is becoming more assertive in the region, as the recent dispute with Japan shows. Nor will it want the U.S. to have an excuse for keeping a strong naval presence so close to its own waters. Both of which suggests that there are limits to Beijing’s support of Kim. The Dear Leader, who needs to show he remains a force to be reckoned with, may well be trying to gauge exactly where those limits lie. It is a dangerous game.