This concentric circle decision-making approach explains the gradual shift in China’s policy toward the DPRK. Evidence that the Chinese bureaucracy was moving toward a policy shift regarding the DPRK surfaced in 2010 in the media. This suggests that prior to 2010 the bureaucracy was debating its DPRK policy and was moving toward some decision. But no clear policy outcome occurred until now – three years later. This eventual outcome indicates the bureaucracy was tied up in negotiations, bargaining, and log-rolling. And because the Chinese system is not a top-down decision-making one, it took time to reconcile divergent opinions within and among the bureaucracy. The duration could mean the more powerful decision-making agencies in the strategic trade bureaucracy were reluctant to implement any policy change, the nature and scope of a policy change was closely scrutinized, and/or some actors, such as some provincial officials who stand to lose tax revenue from the loss of manufacture and export of dual-use commodities, resisted a policy change.
Part of the decision-making process is how Chinese officials interpret the initial policy proposal before them. This offers more insight into why some policies work slowly through the bureaucracy. The officials working within the Chinese bureaucracy examine issues through different lenses of analysis. Some bureaucrats look at the initial proposal from the viewpoint of whether it fits with the current ideology; today the bureaucracy is arguably built on an ideology consisting of Marxism adapted to China’s national peculiarities, which includes facilitating nation-building activities while avoiding outright adoption of the Western experience, as well as nationalism and pragmatism. Others examine the proposal from the viewpoint of whether it is within the current national strategies; the national strategies consist of maintaining internal integrity and stability, moving toward fully establishing the Chinese modern state through national unification, achieving wealth and power, and ultimately attaining what Dr. Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University terms “comprehensive national power.” This concept means translating the country’s wealth and power into increased power status within the international environment. The bureaucracy required time to evaluate and reconcile how a policy shift toward the DPRK is in line with the current ideology and national strategies. In time the officials worked the issue through the bureaucracy, made an exception to the direction of the policy, and eventually made a clear break with past policy. Previously the Chinese leadership aimed to balance both stability on Korea’s peninsula and its denuclearization; but the current policy indicates that the highest priority for the Chinese now is Korea’s denuclearization. This specific outcome, which took a period of time to reach, means the policy shift was completely intentional and is unlikely to be reversed.
The Chinese bureaucracy took the policy shift one step further and publicly announced it. In doing so, it sent a message to the international community that it is serious about enacting and enforcing the new and exacting nonproliferation measures. But more importantly, the public announcement sends a clear signal to potential domestic violators that the Chinese bureaucracy means business. In other words, the bureaucracy has established sufficient consensus and enough political will with the principal agencies and at the highest levels to implement, enforce, and punish violators; and the penalties can be quite severe as they range from fines to threats of agency closure.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In the DPRK case, both internal and external variables shape the Chinese bureaucracy’s decision-making process. Internally the Chinese leadership is more interested in maintaining stability and internal integrity, stamping out corruption, expanding co-option of segments of society, working toward national unification, and eventually achieving comprehensive national power. It also wants to address current economic, environmental, and social challenges that further complicate and threaten to undermine the foregoing agenda. The leadership is concerned that external factors could destabilize the trajectory of the current domestic experiment. Meanwhile, China’s external environment and in particular the Northeast Asia region is more and more volatile, in part due to the DPRK and in part due to Japan as well as the United States.
As for the DPRK, a nuclear-armed North Korean regime with delivery means might cause the Japanese and American leadership to take action, such as a pre-emptive strike. This in turn might force the Chinese bureaucracy to divert attention and resources away from the domestic agenda to deal with the DPRK issue. As for Japan and the U.S., both governments in part cite the threat posed by the DPRK as a justification for Japan’s military transformation, expanded Japan-U.S. security cooperation, and increased U.S. military presence throughout the region. These developments are problematic for the Chinese leadership, particularly because it looks more and more like the Japanese leadership, with substantial help from the U.S., is carving out a new sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. This trend sits poorly with the majority of the Chinese population that prefers a more assertive Chinese policy toward Japan.
In response, the Chinese bureaucracy ultimately instituted significant constraints on the DPRK’s weapons programs, aiming to decrease the effects of external factors on the internal ones. And last but certainly not least, the Chinese bureaucracy could earn some political capital internationally for making such a bold and decisive move at a time when it appears the DPRK regime has hit a tipping point. The Chinese bureaucracy’s new nonproliferation policy toward the DPRK regime should have significant impact on stultifying Pyongyang’s efforts to advance its nuclear and missile programs. But the key is moving the policy into practice: Will the Chinese bureaucracy be able to mobilize resources and coordinate activities to enforce total and sustained compliance with the new nonproliferation policy?
Dr. J.M. Norton teaches international relations and US foreign policy at China’s Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing, China. The research discussed in this article is based on two forthcoming papers. The views presented here are the author’s own and are not associated with the views of CFAU.