CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adam MacDonald, an independent scholar on Canadian foreign policy and Asia-​Pacific security, comments on China’s relationship with North Korea.

China’s long-standing support for North Korea, rather than being rooted in any common bonds between the two ‘communist’ countries or historical affinities as allies, is almost exclusively due to geopolitical reasons. To Beijing, North Korea is a buffer state in Northeast Asia inhibiting the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which most likely would establish a polity dominated by Seoul and remaining a strong American ally.

China and North Korea are not allies, due to the lack of deep and interwoven interests, common world outlooks and strategic frameworks. The 1961 Friendship Treaty does oblige China to come to the defence of North Korea, but Beijing has made clear they will not do so if Pyongyang initiates any conflict. The relationship is one of pragmatism for China and necessity for North Korea. Beijing’s motivations for supporting North Korea stem from a strategy of frustrating American geopolitical dominance in the region. For Pyongyang, with virtually no other options, China is their only diplomatic protector and outlet to the world and, thus, critical in the survival of the regime.

Over the past decade, however, North Korea’s endless hostility towards the region is severely compromising the strategic benefits Beijing accrues from Pyongyang. China remains largely indifferent to human rights conditions and regime practices, and continues to defend them internationally, but North Korea has become an unstable and unpredictable entity whose war mongering and nuclear tests are compromising East Asian security to the detriment of China’s long-term interests. Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang, as well, has increasingly become one of estrangement, with the Kim regime seemingly impervious to Chinese pressure.

China’s inability to influence North Korea has caused regional states to look to the US to take the lead. As pre-emptive military action against Pyongyang is a non-starter, and sensing no other means to change North Korean behaviour, the US has resorted to increasingly widespread sanctions, moving away from surgically targeting areas directly related to their nuclear program to measures that affect the entire country, such as banning energy imports. Washington, furthermore, has strengthened defence alliances with Japan and South Korea by reaffirming extended deterrence and is in negotiations with Seoul to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems – a move publicly opposed by Beijing as compromising its own national security.

For China, North Korea’s provocations legitimize American militarily and political involvement (i.e., reinforcing Washington’s ‘rebalance’ to the region) and stifle Chinese attempts to demonstrate their ability to contribute public security goods. For Beijing, as well, growing relations with South Korea are being compromised, as Seoul increasingly looks to the US as the region’s natural leader and most reliable defence partner. Combined with China’s military modernization efforts and reclamation projects and developments around disputed islands in the East China and South China Seas, which already have caused alarm amongst its neighbours, North Korea has become a strategic liability for Beijing in demonstrating either their unwillingness or inability to reign in the rogue state, allowing an opportunity for the US to capitalize in maintaining and strengthening its regional leadership role.

Chinese leaders, however, have been reluctant to condemn North Korea and implement harsh economic and diplomatic measures commensurate of those imposed by the West and Japan. Beijing’s policies towards North Korea though, have undergone important modifications, most significantly support for and implementation of UN sanctions since 2006 following Pyongyang’s abandonment of the Six Party Talks and the commencement of regular nuclear and missile tests. Attempting to dissuade North Korean rogue behaviour, however, is second to ensuring the regime does not collapse; a scenario with direct implications for Beijing, including mass refugee migrations, fallout from any potential nuclear use (or misuse) by the regime in its dying throes, and the possible presence of US troops on Beijing’s doorstep as part of any intervention force. As China is North Korea’s only trading partner, Beijing maintains these critical lifelines for the regime vice disowning and abandoning Pyongyang. Isolation of North Korea by China could embolden the paranoid leadership into even more brazen acts or precipitate the end of the regime.

China, however, could play a leading role in attempting to resume negotiations between North Korea and the United States. Beijing is concerned the sanctioning regime is moving towards a path of purely punitive measures which may stress the regime to a breaking point. As China’s foreign minister stated in January: ‘sanctions are not an end in themselves.’ In that vein, Beijing should use its unique relationships with both Pyongyang and Washington to chart a new direction in negotiations, with regional stability the primary objective. Gone are the days of the West using economic incentives to entice Pyongyang towards denuclearization measures. The Kim regime has wedded not only their regime survival but status and legitimacy on becoming a nuclear-armed country, determined to achieve such a capability regardless of the costs to their people or external relations.

Beijing must convince the US and North Korea to lower their preconditions and expectations for negotiations. For the United States, it must be accepted (but not publicly acknowledged) that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and that the best result for regional stability will come about through providing security guarantees concerning regime survival towards Pyongyang. North Korea will need to accept the presence of US troops in South Korea and that threats of nuclear pre-emption and proliferation to others are completely unacceptable to all parties, including China. This will be a hard sell for both sides.

The North Korean regime will have to temper the divisive and inflammatory propaganda they have fed their citizens incessantly for years and the US will have to accept a nuclear-armed state whose regime durability does not seem to be in jeopardy anytime soon. Fears that a nuclear North Korea is a fatal blow to the non-proliferation regime writ large, emboldening other states to pursue a similar brinkmanship type strategy in the pursuit of such a capability, fail to recognize not only the reality that North Korea already is a nuclear-armed state but more importantly that it remains a poor, isolated, and marginalized entity.

China does not want a nuclear armed North Korea. As a major power, it shares common security interests – and thus an area for further cooperation – with the United States and others in the face of a new nuclear reality, in which members of the nuclear club are no longer exclusively comprised of great powers. Denuclearization, however, is not a feasible objective and thus promoting regional stability must be channelled through influencing Pyongyang to adopt the language of nuclear deterrence vice pre-emption; continuing to restrict access to materials and technologies to further their nuclear projects; and ensuring proliferation of nuclear know-how and materials is not conducted.

Within this reality, China must pursue a middle way between its de facto continuation of their North Korean policy on one side while ensuring the US and others do not move towards a strategy of strangulation and regime collapse on the other.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments, and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He can be reached at (Image courtesy of Asia Times.)

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