North Korea is back in the news after its rogue regime launched a missile that cut through Japanese airspace, causing Japanese officials to issue a “take cover” order to its citizens. This is the most belligerent provocation made by Kim Jong Un, not only since Donald Trump became President, but since Kim himself became supreme leader of the hermit kingdom.
Obviously, the media is swirling about whether the Trump administration will take some sort of action to respond to the latest missile launch. We shouldn’t expect anything in the next day or so as the President is in Houston to evaluate the emergency relief for Hurricane Harvey. However, when the floods recede, you can bet that President Trump will have harsh words for Kim Jong Un.
One of Trump’s go-to moves when purveying his strategy toward North Korea is to explicitly call out China for doing nothing to rein in its neighbor and fellow Communist state. In fact, China is likely still providing economic relief to North Korea despite voting for new UN sanctions, though the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would never admit to this.
The most widely accepted conclusion reached by government officials and the media as to why China remains so stubborn is that they care only about regional stability. It will not take any action that might spur an international conflict or lead to regime change in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Nor will it take a principled stand against the United States, South Korea, and Japan and defend North Korea’s actions outright, which would be foolish. This conclusion is probably correct.
However, there is another reason China, particularly CCP General Secretary and President Xi Jinping, have remained inactive amidst the high tension. This reason has not been covered in any Western media outlet that I’ve seen.
It is simple. The next CCP National Party Congress will be held this autumn. It is fast approaching. The success of Xi Jinping’s second five-year term hangs in the balance of the Party Congress proceeding the way he desires. He will not do anything to provide his critics with any cannon fodder to attack his leadership.
Though Xi has consolidated more power than any CCP leader since Mao Zedong, presiding over a Leninist-style government is always precarious for the head honcho. In order for Xi to maintain his status as China’s “core” leader, he cannot take any unnecessary risks.
However, if Xi rearranges the CCP Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee in a way that surrounds himself with allies—thus eliminating any barriers to pushing his agenda and ensuring further accumulation of power for the next five years and beyond—there’s a chance he takes a less arbitrary stance on North Korea. Until then, it will be nothing but crickets from Beijing with regard to the actions of Pyongyang.
That will ultimately beg the question, were Xi to take decisive steps on the North Korea problem, would he fall on the side of his ideological brethren in North Korea or his biggest economic partners in the U.S., Japan, and South Korea? While I won’t be holding my breath, I’m inclined to believe that regional instability caused by North Korea will convince Xi that Kim Jon Un has to be removed in favor of a Deng Xiaoping-style reformer—still an authoritarian ruler, but one who won’t be infallible, will disarm the nuclear program, and open the country economically.
From Beijing’s perspective, I see this as the best potential option for handling its pesky neighbor. Allowing the Kim regime to continue unabated would be disastrous for regional stability. Blatantly supporting the regime would warrant universal condemnation and economic sanctions from the international community. And encouraging a preemptive strike by the U.S. that leads to total regime change will burden China not only with millions of refugees, but also with the potential of a unified, capitalist Korean peninsula.
Regardless, don’t plan on seeing any concrete action from Beijing until the CCP elites finish playing domestic politics at the 19th National Party Congress this fall.
Cover Image courtesy of Taiwan News.