China without North Korea

North Korea ChinaNorth Korea’s third nuclear test is a game changer not only for the United States and Japan, but also for the regime’s last ally, China.

The official Chinese reaction to North Korea’s latest provocation was stern: China is “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test, and it is calling for the resumption of international talks. But China’s stance lacks meaningful bite, because its leaders fail to recognise that they no longer need to succumb to their unruly neighbour’s blackmail.

In carrying out the test, the North Koreans once again compromise China’s national interests. The international community is again firmly focused on China’s relationship with its rogue ally, and expects that, as an emerging superpower seeking to reassure the world of its peaceful rise, China will play a constructive role. However limited China’s influence may be, the North Korean regime can sustain itself only with Chinese backing.

With North Korea’s latest nuclear test coming so quickly after its rocket launch in December, the United Nations has good reason to ask China, a permanent Security Council member, to take the diplomatic lead. It is simply not enough for China to call, as its official statement does, for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks with South Korea, China, the US, Japan, and Russia. That framework has been thoroughly discredited by North Korea’s repeated violation of past agreements.

China must warn North Korea that it will not be pressured into providing support even when Chinese national interests have been undermined. Indeed, China should make clear that, much as it would prefer North Korea to survive and prosper, it could afford to allow its erstwhile ally to implode.

Simply put, the conventional wisdom that North Korea’s collapse would be disastrous for China is misconceived. Any crisis sparked by North Korean refugees fleeing across the Chinese border would be short-lived, and international assistance would be readily available.

Likewise, China need not fear a South Korea-led unification of the peninsula. China already enjoys a smoother relationship with the South than it does with the North. Unification would occupy the Korean people for the next two decades, with Japan and the US compelled to inject a huge amount of aid to rebuild and reintegrate the North. This hardly runs counter to China’s interests as it continues its own advance toward becoming the world’s largest economy.

Indeed, if this process were to unfold, the US rationale for keeping its own military forces in South Korea would disappear. A phased reduction of the American presence would follow. If the US wished to maintain bases in Korea in the longer term, it would have to secure permission from a proud and newly united Korean nation – hardly a forgone conclusion.

Moreover, a united Korea will have inherited the North’s nuclear weapons. This will pose challenges to US-Korea relations, which should work to China’s advantage. The US will remain committed to de-nuclearising the peninsula, while the Korean government will be tempted to retain the North’s nuclear capabilities. This strain further reduces the risk of having US troops stationed on the Korean side of China’s border.

China must also consider the implications of North Korea’s actions on its own fractious relations with Japan. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top foreign-policy priority is to force the Japanese government to acknowledge, if not accept, China’s territorial claims in the two countries’ dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Chinese naval ships have already trained their weapons on a Japanese destroyer and a Japanese naval helicopter.

In these incidents, the single most important reason for Japanese restraint has been its military’s own rules of engagement. Under current law, Japanese security forces are forbidden from firing their weapons unless clearly fired upon, which means that the country’s Maritime Self-Defence Force vessels can do little when targeted by Chinese naval radar. And revising the rules to allow Japan’s military to, say, destroy a North Korean missile before it reaches Japanese air space would increase the risk of conflict between Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces.

If the Chinese leadership can think beyond its usual default response to North Korean misbehaviour – abstract condemnation followed by a call for dialogue – it can apply real pressure on the North Korean regime in full view of the international community. North Korea’s last ally should give it one last chance. And then it should be prepared to pull the plug.

Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.
Source: Project Syndicate – “China without North Korea”

Categories: Politics & Law

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.


  2. Reblogged this on danmillerinpanama and commented:
    An interesting and useful analysis, but it does not mention the alliance between Iran and North Korea, which have been cooperating on nuclear and missile technology for years. It appears that North Korea, which has tested three nuclear devices and successfully launched a satellite, is likely to do more of both this year. That suggests that North Korea may be more advanced than Iran.

    Negotiators apparently hope to give Iran increased access to gold and other precious metals in exchange for access to its Fordow enrichment site,

    something that could be used as part of barter transactions that might allow Iran to circumvent increasingly tight financial sanctions.

    There are also plans to impose more stringent sanctions on North Korea further limiting its access to gold and diamonds.

    With that package, the Iran – North Korea nuclear and missile partnership seems likely to flourish to an even greater extent than presently. Iran should be able to limit its own uranium enrichment and pay North Korea to do all or most of that work. Should that happen, Iran should have little difficult beyond transport in securing greater quantities of more highly enriched uranium than it can now provide itself.

    With Iranian payments for enrichment, North Korea should be able to buy more of the stuff it needs further to improve its own rocketry and nuclear technology. As I noted at the link,

    With increased access to gold and other precious metals Iran could, in addition to continuing to share nuclear weapon and missile technology, reduce or even cease Uranium enrichment and instead buy enriched Uranium from its partners in North Korea — made even more hungry for gold and other money substitutes by EU sanctions. With such money substitutes otherwise put in shorter supply, and with Iran getting an abundance, North Korea might well be happy to give Iran a really good deal.

    To the extent that North Korea is dependent on China, that dependence might well be reduced further – thereby further reducing whatever already diminished moderating influence China still has on North Korea.


  3. The idea that China would gain more than it loses with the collapse of North Korea has been advanced before, mainly in the West, but the fact remains that China still doesn’t see it that way. They view the probability of South Korea’s continued alignment with the United States and the disappearance of their North Korean buffer zone as the more important considerations, and it is unlikely they will change their mind. The consistent line of the Chinese Party has been that the only path forward for North Korea is evolutionary reform, as the Chinese have been trying to persuade the North Koreans for years.
    David Shambaugh’s view:
    More sources:
    I also recommend some of Victor Cha’s Youtube videos.


    • China reportedly has plans in place to claim North Korea as part of China (historical precedent and “newly-discovered” maps) should the current North Korean government collapse.



  1. New options for South Korea’s China policy « China Daily Mail
  2. China’s patience with North Korea is wearing thin | China Daily Mail
  3. In China, US gets it wrong on North Korea and Iran nuclear deals | China Daily Mail

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