In the 1970s China pioneered ping-pong diplomacy by inviting the American table tennis team to play in Beijing. It was a time when China was sealed off from the rest of the world, so the invite was a major step. Indeed, in a banquet to welcome the American players, Premier Zhou Enlai toasted the head of the US Table Tennis Association with the remark: “Your visit has opened a new chapter in the history of the relations between the Chinese and American peoples.”
Never one to be upstaged, Mao Zedong later opted for a more metaphorical flourish, urging that the tiny ping-pong ball be used to move the large ball of the earth. Sure enough, the match would lead to the visit of Richard Nixon and the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington.
Fast forward to events in the present day hermit kingdom of North Korea, which last week seemed to be pioneering basketball diplomacy. Its leader Kim Jong-un seemed to be using the visit of NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman – in Pyongyang for an exhibition match by the Harlem Globetrotters – to open a back channel to the US. After publicly hugging Kim and eating sushi with him, the American told the media that the North Korean leader was “an awesome guy” and that he wanted President Obama to give him a call.
As one pundit told ABC: “There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong-un than Dennis Rodman, and that in itself is scary.”
One thing that was less publicised about Rodman’s trip but in some ways more significant: Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, revealed that its reporters hadn’t been accredited to attend the basketball match. That might be a telling indication that relations between Pyongyang and Beijing are cooling – an important development given that China has long been the Kim family’s only ally and economic life support.
In fact, it became clearer this week that ties have deteriorated between the two nations. In a move that reflects Beijing’s frustration that its ‘ally’ went ahead with a nuclear test last month, China has been working with the US on a new round of sanctions against the North Koreans. According to the Wall Street Journal these “bring new focus to North Korea’s financial transactions and the activities of its diplomats abroad, and call on nations to help prevent leaders of the poverty-stricken country from obtaining specific luxury items, including yachts and race cars.” The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice described them as “some of the toughest sanctions imposed by the UN”, and included the right to search suspect North Korean ships.
As to that cuddly basketball diplomacy with Washington, the warmer mood didn’t last long as North Korea quickly returned to form. In retaliation to the news of the discussion about further sanctions, Pyongyang announced it would rip up the 1953 truce with South Korea and its military even threatened to strike the US with “lighter and smaller nukes” (it’s good to see that Pyongyang is picking up a bit of lingo from the Americans).
This seems to have rattled Beijing, with its foreign ministry spokesperson urging parties to “remain calm and restrained”.
But if that sounds like the usual script from the Chinese, it’s also clear that some blue water thinking is underway in Beijing as it seeks to contain a neighbour which veers from embarrassing to dangerous (and back again) on a regular basis.
An opinion piece in the Financial Times last week flagged as much. Penned by Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of Study Times (the journal of the Central Party School), it couldn’t have been written without sign-off from the political elite. And the theme of the piece suggested that Beijing should abandon North Korea. Deng wrote that the alliance no longer works and that there is even a danger that “once the capricious regime has nuclear weapons, Pyongyang might use them to blackmail China”.
Indeed, Deng’s solution is to push for a reunification of North and South Korea. As Deng knows, but doesn’t explicitly state, that would mean Beijing giving its backing to regime change and toppling the Kim dynasty.
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