It was a strange moment of diplomacy in Laos when North Korea tried to bring about a revision in the chairman’s statement issued at the 23rd ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The statement was issued on 27 July after the conclusion of the two-day meetings of foreign ministers of the 27 member countries of the ARF. The chair country Laos, which has good relations with North Korea, tried to explore the possibility of revising the statement but had to finally reject it because all other countries were in opposition. In fact, in the usual manner, ARF’s statement this year expressed concern over North Korean nuclear and missile programmes. Almost similar statements were issued at previous ARFs in 2015 and 2014 in Malaysia and Myanmar respectively, at which North Korea had not brought up the possibility of such revision.
In another interesting move, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho stayed two more days in Laos after the end of the ARF. This could be seen as a move to consolidate North Korea's friends in the Southeast Asian region. However, it also may not be totally delinked from the ARF dynamics. Even though more sanctions and pressures on North Korea have been put by the international community after its fourth nuclear test in January this year, North Korea seems to be becoming increasingly confident. The secret of this renewed confidence is basically China’s U-turn in its policy towards North Korea.
In the last few years, the South China Sea and East China Sea have emerged as an arena of tension and for power projection. Aggressive Chinese moves and the uncompromising stands of the other involved countries, including the US, had led to a worrisome situation in regional politics. China under Xi Jinping apparently has fully abandoned the old dictum of ‘build your capacity and hide your strength’ and now demands ‘great-power relations’ with the US. Earlier, China tried to placate some US allies such as South Korea, through diplomatic means and aspired to outsmart the US in the region. However, in the process, it distanced itself from North Korea without being successful in creating any gap in the US-South Korea alliance.
Two recent developments - the US success in persuading/pressuring South Korea to have Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system installed on the Korean peninsula and the judgement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the South China Sea - have been major setbacks for China. Now, China can either move backward and yield or it can move forward more aggressively in regional politicking. At present, it seems that China has opted for the second and initiated a more overt policy to dominate the region. In the process, the significance of North Korea in Chinese foreign policy has become more salient. In 2016, China has been trying to accommodate North Korean ambitions and repair its bilateral relations with Pyongyang, though North Korea has not shown any sign of compromise on most Chinese demands, such as economic reforms and abandoning nuclear weapons. China entertained the former North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong in Beijing in May 2015 and arranged his meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping despite no change in North Korean behaviour.
China’s game with regard to North Korea has become more obvious with the foreign ministers of China and North Korea arriving together, in the same airplane, from China to Laos, to participate in one of the region's broadest multilateral fora, the ARF. Furthermore, to make this camaraderie even more obvious, the two leaders stayed in the same hotel. It was done deliberately by China to show the international community about its non-compromising intent in regional politics.
China's new game is going to be responded to by the big players in the region, such as the US, Japan, Australia and India, by their moving closer to one another in military-strategic cooperation. In fact, China is not oblivious to this fact, and in spite of knowing these counter responses, is ready to escalate the matter.
Both sides must remember that a full-scale war or conflict between the big players cannot be a pragmatic option given the cost attached to it. A military solution to any of these regional issues is next to impossible. The escalation of hostility and non-compromising stands would create a dilemma for the smaller, more responsible countries of the region to take sides, and provide space for irresponsible and ‘rogue’ countries like North Korea to manoeuvre. It is important that the big players understand this reality and be more imaginative and accommodating in pursuing their national interests.