Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell, Chinese-style

South Korea is justifiably upset after China hosted, roasted, feted and abetted its public enemy number one, Kim Jong Il. North Korea is suspected of having sunk a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. As South Korea works its way towards a response as well as conclusive proof, Kim Jong Il set off for China where he received a warm reception. If, say, Uzbekistan sank a German ship with significant casualties and then the Uzbek president was kindly received by Argentina, Germany would have a bone to pick with Argentina.

There are many facets of China that I find fascinating, one of them is the fog-like mystery that surrounds the country, particularly when it comes to its northeastern region near North Korea. Train stations in Dandong and Dalian were shut down, an entire hotel in Dalian was served up for the use of the Kim entourage, and even though a fifth of the world lives there, all the pictures that turned up of Kim's presence in China were a few scattered shots here and there. A reasonable collection of those images is here, with a Chinese video summarizing the events here.

Watching Kim shake hands with the mysterious men who run China, two things come to mind. First, for all the adulation he receives in his own country, he's a small man outside of it, a very small man even to his closest (only?) ally. Much is made of the fact that North Korea's future might not be an inevitable reunion with the South, but some sort of absorption into China, whether official or non-official.

It is already clear that China is the only thing keeping North Korea afloat and able to occasionally menace the outer world. What's more troublesome is the prospect of North Koreans exchanging one communist yoke for another. Much of Kim's visit seemed to consider business prospects for North Korea in the northeast, particularly Dalian. This counters Chinese investment in North Korea, including a long-term lease of a port that gives China access to the Sea of Japan. Closer Chinese-DPRK ties could mean that China has far more clout with Kim's successor, or maybe even steps in to catch North Korea when it falls.

The second, more troublesome prospect is that of Chinese disinterest in who you are and what you're doing, as long as you're doing business with them. This goes from the people who try to sell you something, anything as you go about your business all the way to African countries who prefer dealing with China as an investor and source of aid because China asks fewer questions about how the money is spent or how human rights are trampled.

Counteracting our post-Cold War dream that democracy and human rights would sweep all over the world, a reader at Andrew Sullivan's blog writes:

The influence of America and Europe is declining, and the international consensus on human rights against practices such as torture and rendition has unraveled. Assuming a shift in alliances, do you think China or Russia would care what Israel did to its Palestinians?

Leaving aside the specific question of whether American is really a better representative for Palestinian interests than China or Russia, on the horizon is a dimmer future where Chinese disinterest in internal politics has grave consequences when combined with Chinese power. China is somewhat justified in seeking stability on its northeastern corner, much as it does by closing borders to troubled states when the times get rough. It recently responded to Kyrgyz turmoil by closing the border with that country, and has kept its Afghan border closed for a long time (fun fact: the Chinese-Afghan border doesn't even have a road).

That said, the self-serving Chinese desire to avoid a crisis doesn't entail rubbing South Korea's nose in its recent tragedy. The gap between public and private opinions when it comes to South Korean politics is immense. Chinese is loosely used as an insult in Korea and America is loosely used as a ephemeral plus word in marketing. However, the prospect of eating the very American beef that 300 million Americans eat brought people into the streets by millions. This Chinese insult to South Korea produced a small protest at the Chinese embassy in Seoul, but nothing more.


R said...

Remember the days back in Turner when we'd sit around cafeteria tables and mull geopolitical what-ifs? I'll give it a go:

"If, say, Uzbekistan sank a German ship with significant casualties and then the Uzbek president was kindly received by Argentina, Germany would have a bone to pick with Argentina."

Germany would pick Argentina to death with a bone.

Jennifer said...

This is very troubling on my any levels.