September 11, 2017 8:00 am JST
China up close

Xi's blueprint for 'G-2' stained by Kim Jong Un

North Korean nuclear test knocks 'major country diplomacy' off track

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, and his wife, Peng Liyuan, greet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS banquet in Xiamen, China on Sept. 4.The couple married in Xiamen 30 years ago. © Reuters

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping had a long day on Sept. 3, greeting foreign dignitaries at a diplomatic extravaganza in a southeastern coastal city amid unusually tight security.

It was the opening day of the three-day BRICS summit in Xiamen, Fujian Province, and in the morning there was a stroke of luck when a typhoon veered away from the host city. This is the city where Xi married his wife, national singer Peng Liyuan, 30 years ago this month.

Then a geopolitical earthquake shook Xi -- North Korea had detonated its most powerful nuclear device to date.

Pyongyang called the explosion a successful test of a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.

North Korea's latest wake-up call to the world -- it had conducted five earlier detonations -- jarred Xi. It was the second time in less than four months that the determined neighbor blatantly snubbed Xi.

The backlash against Xi

But back to the summit, or at least to its setting. Gulangyu Island was previously named the most beautiful district of China and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site earlier this year. Yet ocean view guest rooms at a cluster of hotels overlooking the scenic islet all sat empty on Sept. 3 to prevent snipers from targeting Xi and other domestic and foreign dignitaries traveling along a coastal road.

Authorities informed the affected hotels that same day they would have to empty certain rooms. A number of tourists were left with nowhere to go.

Perhaps their wanderings gave all the plainclothes police officers on each Xiamen street corner something to monitor.

Security was tighter than initially planned because the Chinese Communist Party only days earlier, on Aug. 31, announced that its quinquennial national congress will start on Oct. 18. The BRICS summit -- where leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa get together -- would be Xi's final high-profile appearance on the international stage before the all-important party powwow, and Xi did not want anyone to spoil it.

Xi came to power as the ruling party's general secretary in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the presidency in the spring of 2013. Since then, Xi has wielded an anti-corruption campaign against political foes and to consolidate power.

But China's leader now faces a growing backlash within and outside the party for being high-handed in making personnel changes, ostensibly for the sake of fighting corruption.

Hence the abruptly added security measures.

Xi loses face

Too bad Xi could not tame North Korea as easily as he did Xiamen's hoteliers.

On the morning of the first day of the summit, state-run China Central Television was reporting on what Xi would say in his speech that afternoon.

Xi has a particularly strong attachment to Xiamen. This was underscored by a speech he gave the following evening during a banquet.

"Thirty-two years ago, I came to Xiamen for work," he told his audience, according to Chinese state media reports. "I was here to serve as a deputy mayor. That day was my 32nd birthday."

North Korea's nuclear test seemed intended to humiliate Xi. Not even four months earlier, on May 14, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile. It came hours before Xi was to welcome dignitaries to a Beijing conference where the president would tout his Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure undertaking intended as modern-day Silk Road trade routes.

No coincidence that the missile and nuclear tests were timed to coincide with major international conferences hosted by Xi.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, angry that Xi is pressuring Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear programs, "wants to make Xi lose face," said one East Asian diplomatic source.

During CCTV's daytime news program on Sept. 3, the anchor briefly mentioned that a magnitude-6.3 earthquake had jolted North Korea. That and the fact that the temblor was also felt throughout a stretch of China were enough to light up social media with rumors about a North Korean nuclear explosion.

But no official Chinese media reports about the blast came until after 4 p.m., when the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement confirming that North Korea had exploded a nuclear device.

Light on facts, the statement instead stressed that the Chinese government stood firmly against the test -- a bid to distract from the fact that the leader of a state decades behind much of the rest of Asia had caused Asia's most powerful leader to lose face.

China's public sways

Chinese media reports are now awash with propaganda aimed at enhancing Xi's authority. CCTV is a good example. The state-run broadcaster aired a documentary series, "Major-Country Diplomacy," ahead of the BRICS summit.

The series trumpeted the diplomatic achievements Xi has achieved since becoming China's top leader and aired during the run-up to the Communist Party's crucial national congress.

Xi and his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, held their first meeting at Trump's posh Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on April 6-7. Later, Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to the Wall Street Journal and said that Xi had given him a lesson on Chinese-Korean history. Trump made a splash by quoting Xi as saying that Korea, not North Korea,"actually used to be a part of China."

CCTV's documentary series mentioned that at the meeting, Xi explained in detail, with patience, China Korea relations, and that "President Trump later recalled the conversation." 

While making no direct reference to the "a part of China" statement, it effectively confirms that the conversation took place.

The series gives valuable insights into Xi's views on Sino-U.S. relations. It was designed to tout a partnership that the two countries struck up to cope with a nuclear weapon- and ballistic missile-wielding North Korea, a country that has had a chip on its shoulder since the 1953 armistice that halted but did not end the Korean War.

The documentaries effectively herald the arrival of a new "G-2 era" in which the two great powers -- China under Xi and the U.S. -- jointly manage the North Korean crisis, although it stopped short of using the term "G-2."

A growing number of officials inside the Xi regime think the intractable North Korean issue opens the way for Beijing-Washington cooperation.

After the two presidents met in Florida, Xi followed up with repeated phone conversations. He also tried to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

At the time, North Korea was threatening to conduct a nuclear test anywhere from April 15, the birthday of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un's grandfather, and April 25, the anniversary of the Korean People's Army.

"China warned North Korea of grave consequences of any new nuclear test," a source familiar with relations between the two neighbors said. The source also said China threatened to further scale back its trade with North Korea.

North Korea forwent a nuclear test in April but continued to test-fire ballistic missiles, twice launching an ICBM in July.

Then came the nuclear test. Pyongyang said the explosion was the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an ICBM.

The blast was so strong that buildings as far away as China's northeastern Liaoning and Jilin provinces swayed.

It was also big enough to make Chinese citizens wary of North Korea.

Stacking the committee

This was problematic for Xi.In the upcoming national party congress, the Chinese leader -- the "core" of the party -- has to convince his colleagues that his "major country diplomacy" is working.

His need to eliminate all anxiety factors has led him to take what some may see as extreme measures. The dismissal of Chief of the Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui on Aug. 26 was one example.

Feng, a member of China's Central Military Commission, was central to building connections with the U.S. armed forces. After the first Xi-Trump meeting in early April, the two militaries have made more progress than expected toward building connections to prevent any misunderstanding in the event of the U.S. taking military action against North Korea.

When the Joint Staff Department was reorganized under the Central Military Commission as part of Xi's sweeping military reforms, Fang became the department head, making him responsible for operations. He also accompanied Xi on his April visit to the U.S. During a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Fang sat beside Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter.

Just last month, on Aug. 15, Fang hosted Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's highest-ranking military officer, in Beijing. Their meeting came amid heightened tensions over North Korea. Fang and Dunford signed a framework agreement for a joint staff dialogue mechanism meant to strengthen communication between the Chinese and U.S. armed forces.

Less than two weeks later, however, Fang fell victim to Xi's anti-corruption campaign.

In addition to Fang, China's graft busters bared their fangs at Zhang Yang, the head of the Central Military Commission's Political Work Department.

Xi feels the need to stack the Central Military Commission with those loyal to him.

Fang and Zhang are leading members of the military's previous conservative generation. Fang is widely seen as a member of former President Hu Jintao's faction. In 2009, during the Hu era, he served as the supreme commander for a military parade.

Xi's dilemma

While Xi has been able to deal with figures from rival factions, and while "Major-Country Diplomacy" put him in the best light possible, North Korea's nuclear blast knocked him off his stride.

With Xi wrong-footed, it is becoming more likely that the U.S. will take some kind of military action against North Korea. In the recent joint drill with South Korea, the U.S. Military conducted training to take out Kim Jong Un from power.

To play a role in this drama, as a major country, the only effective card China has is to impose an oil embargo. Yet, providing oil could be Beijing's last source of leverage against Pyongyang. Can Xi afford to go down this path?

Once again, China finds itself in a dilemma.

It is now five weeks to the party's national congress.

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