On Contradiction: The PRC Foreign Ministry and “China Responsibility Theory”

By | July 15, 2017 | No Comments

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, complains at length about the US approach to the North Korean nuclear issue during a press briefing on July 11. | Image: CCTV

On July 11, the Chinese Foreign Ministry (hereafter MFA) held its regular press conference, at which spokesman Geng Shuang made a particularly pointed rebuff against US pressure on China on the North Korea issue. The statement gathered plenty of press comment, including that of Reuters as well as Benjamin Haas for The Guardian.

In the face of this reporting, no one in the Trump administration or the State Department was prepared to comment about the Foreign Ministry statement. Given that the Trump administration had invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into driving a wedge between China and North Korea, and that this was one of the most explicit rebuffs of that strategy to date, the silence was a bit odd. 

Rather than fashion a response on behalf of an understaffed State Department whose leadership clearly would rather be back at Exxon, the logical thing remains to understand the Chinese statement more clearly. This short takes a slightly deeper dive into the text, using our familiar Jangmadang formula at Sino-NK of revisiting — and, we think, improving — official translations. What follows is the partial and revised version, interspersed with analysis of this dense Foreign Ministry statement. 

2017年7月11日外交部发言人耿爽主持例行记者会” [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang’s July 11, 2017 Press Conference], PRC Foreign Ministry, July 11, 2017. 

Q: Recently, the US, Japan and other countries have called on China to solve the North Korean nuclear issue by using its leverage to the fullest extent, assuming yet heavier responsibility, exhibiting a yet bigger role, taking yet more measures and exerting greater pressure on the DPRK [加大对朝施压]. How does the Chinese side respond to that?

A: We have already said many times, at the core of the North Korean nuclear issue are the contradictions between North Korea and the US [朝核问题的核心是朝美矛盾]; this is intrinsically a security issue [本质是安全问题].

This is a tremendously crafted question, the entirety of which was read out that evening on the July 11 flagship national evening news programme, Xinwen Lianbo.  I would like to call it “the Three Gengs,” for its repetition of the character, for “more,” or “yet more.” Clearly this question was not tendered by Reuters or an outside entity, and (like the answer) it may have even been written by Foreign Minister Wang Yi himself. In any event, it is another reminder — if any was needed — of the integration or orchestration of the various parts of China’s system of propaganda and further that such statements are also intended for domestic consumption, and not to be confused with other “China responsibility theories” previously floated by CCP media.

Three points on the first sentence of the answer, working backwards: First, there is a familiar PRC policy line being put forward here in the notion that a security guarantee to North Korea from the United States will solve everything; it is an alternate theory. The core problem in this view is not about the DPRK system, North Korean ideology, or Kim family leadership; it is a simple need for North Korea to feel secure, and North Korea’s weapons programs are a basic response to the American threat. Such rhetoric does not in itself mitigate wholly for, say, China’s cut-off of North Korean coal, but it is this kind of insistent analysis that keeps North Korea from breaking wholly from the PRC.

Second, what is the vintage of the MFA analysis that the core problem is “contradictions between North Korea and the US” (“朝美矛盾 / ChaoMei maodun”)? The first appearance I was able to find of this precise phrase in PRC state media was in this piece by Dong Yuan in February 2013, just after the third North Korean nuclear test. The Foreign Ministry used the same phrase just after the sixth nuclear test in September 2016 and again in February of this year. In other words, the MFA is here trotting out an analysis which normally comes in periods of extreme stress (i.e., after North Korean nuclear tests, when fingers are being pointed), but which also predates the Trump administration. 

Third, I have chosen to translate  矛盾/maodun  as “contradictions” rather than “conflict” for specific reasons dealing with Chinese discourse on North Korea which can be further explored in this long read on Shen Zhihua. One final translator’s dilemma is to not translate 核心/hexin literally as “nucleus” but rather as “core” (or the MFA’s “crux”), so as to avoid slightly confusing (or too accurate?) wordplay like “the nucleus of the North Korean nuclear conflict.”

The statement continues with more parallelism:

The central contradiction of the North Korean nuclear issue is not China’s, the driving force of the present escalation of tensions is not China, and the key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue is not in Chinese hands [朝核问题的矛盾焦点不是中方,推动当前局势紧张升级的推手不是中方,解决半岛核问题的钥匙也不掌握在中方手中].

In response to the American “three mores” in the question, we now have “three nos” in a sequence.  Perhaps a moratorium could be called on this method? One is bound to become confused with Sigfried Hecker’s “Three Nos” for North Korea (no more nuclear bombs, no more testing, and no proliferation), Wang Yi’s February 2016 “Three Nos” for North Korea (no nukes, no collapse, no war), President Moon’s “Four Nos” for North Korea and Rex Tillerson’s related “Three Nos” of May 3 (no collapse, no accelerated reunification, no invasion)  or the stinging Chinese analysis in Shangri-la that Washington under Trump has “Three Nos” in foreign policy formation (no expertise, no policy framework, and no strategic consensus).

In any event, the MFA language is emphatic and ought to play well domestically. There is also some language here that implicitly blames both North Korea and the US equally for ratcheting up tensions — 推手 / tuishou also refers to a two-person tai chi method, “pushing hands.”

The MFA implies that the North Korean nuclear issue is the result of a US-North Korean duet, mutual pushing independent of other players. | Image: Wu Yingfeng (吴颖锋)

Now the statement turns to new territory, criticizing unnamed journalistic pieces as “ink washing” (渲染 / xuanran) that aims to “pass the buck” (推卸 / tuixie) for the United States. Clearly there is not one iota of criticism for North Korea in this element of things, since the DPRK, too, sees the nuclear issue as a bilateral one:

In recent days, certain people have been embellishing and giving prominence to the so-called “China responsibility theory” with respect to the peninsula’s nuclear issue [近来有些人在半岛核问题上渲染和突出所谓“中国责任论”]. Either those people have failed to understand the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue comprehensively and accurately, or they have done this with a hidden agenda to pass the buck and avoid responsibility [要么是对半岛核问题缺乏全面准确了解,要么就是别有用心、企图推卸责任]. 

The rest of the statement is full of rhetorical questions and idioms, which clearly refer again to the US.

Among the idioms is “burning the bridge after crossing it” (过河拆桥 / guohe chaiqiao; or “to abandon one’s benefactor after achieving the goal”), an apparent reference to China’s nervousness about giving Washington what it wants, and then being left with ongoing conflict.

Although the statement ends with “time to cease with ‘China responsibility theory’,” it seems likely that this is not the last we have heard of it.

Source: “2017年7月11日外交部发言人耿爽主持例行记者会” [Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang’s July 11, 2017 Press Conference], PRC Foreign Ministry, July 11, 2017. Translated by Adam Cathcart.

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