Since his inauguration, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has had his hands full with the latest mischief from North Korea. The situation on the Korean peninsula is becoming more critical and on almost a daily basis, the communist North intensifies its threats on South Korea and the United States. Brinkmanship is an old game in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il, the father of the new dictator, threatened war during his own reign His son, Kim Jong Un has proved to be even more rash and erratic, and has openly flirted with escalation. Meanwhile, the South and the US are prepared for a decisive military response against any type of attack from the North. But what is China’s role in this and how can the superpower-to-be help to solve the political stalemate in its region?
North Korea has worked hard for the past month on drawing attention to its belligerence: a satellite was launched, a third nuclear test was held, the US was threatened with a pre-emptive nuclear strike, the armistice with the South was abandoned and missiles were made ready for further tests. What to make of it can be confusing – it can either be seen as routine behaviour of a North which only tries to maneuver for its own advantage, or it can be seen as easily becoming more dangerous and as something which should be taken more seriously by the international community.
In the hope of avoiding a regime collapse, North Korea’s economic dependency on China has long been tolerated by its most important ally. China is North Koreas biggest trading and diplomatic partner and its main source of food, arms, and fuel. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance obligates China to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression. This is a unique pact in Chinese foreign relations. Despite the fact that China can still determine the need for an intervention, it is eager to deter others from taking military action against Pyongyang. But has China finally lost patience with its troublemaking neighbor?
For a long time, China spared no criticism and offered friendly advice to Pyongyang trying to make it desist from its warmongering and to avert the present troubles. Beijing even suggested an economic opening, but applied little real pressure. However, after the latest series of incidents, China’s patience with its ally may be wearing thin and relations have become more complicated. With China’s agreement to the UN resolution sanctioning North Korea, a dangerous chapter in relations with Pyonyang and its new leader was opened. Whereas North Korea believes it is still safe to set a course of conflict and prepares its people for war, China knows about the importance of achieving a peaceful resolution whilst ensuring that eventual denuclearization is accomplished. China has never openly criticized North Korea as much as it has recently. President Xi Jinping commented on the situation, saying that no country “should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain”, in an apparent reference to North Korea. Even in the social media, open and critical discussion of the North Korean question is now largely permitted in China.
There are several reasons why China has no interest in a reunified Korea or a destabilization of the Pyongyang regime. The geo-strategic importance of the region plays a major role. North Korea and China share a common border of about 1400 km. If North Korea faces collapse, there is a risk of a mass influx of refugees to North East China. What’s more, North Korea is designated as a buffer zone for China – since it keeps the US military from the Chinese land border.
For the time being China’s traditional view – that a divided Korea is best for them – is maintained. But so far it’s too difficult to tell what the future direction of China’s North Korea policy will be. Despite the fact that China knows the consequence of North Korea as a nuclear state – a potential nuclear arms race in the region – it hasn’t yet taken any harsh action against its ally. The existing status quo still determines China’s Korea policy, and it is not likely to be given up without a systemic crisis in North Korea. China’s central interest is to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Still, there is evidence that Beijing has begun considering the possibility of the collapse of North Korea. Not only has North Korea openly been criticized by Beijing, China is also pursuing closer economic integration with South Korea. Furthermore, a good relationship with Washington is significant for China and it could be of great importance for China to reassess its “guarantor”-style relationship with North Korea. Beijing could instead focus on helping defuse any impending disaster by convincing Pyongyang to return to negotiations and pressure for a North Korean commitment to nuclear dismantlement.
But if China wishes to keep accumulating geopolitical influence it will certainly not risk its hegemony in Asia frivolously. China has too much at stake in North Korea to entirely halt or withdraw its support for its badly behaving buffer state.