In the wake of North Korea’s third nuclear test, attention has inevitably turned to China. As North Korea’s largest trading partner and supplier of aid, including food and oil, China is the only country in the world that has potential leverage over Pyongyang that could be used to compel it to give up its nuclear ambitions. Chinese support for yet another United Nations Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s provocations and further sanctioning its behavior is essential since UNSCR 2087, which was unanimously adopted in late January in response to North’s December the long-range rocket launch, expressed the determination of the UNSC to take “significant action in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test.” But the imposition of additional penalties by the UN is unlikely to force North Korean leader Kim Jung-un to abandon the nuclear weapons program and return to multilateral talks.
Undoubtedly, many Chinese will advise against a substantial cut in assistance to North Korea, arguing that such a step could cause instability and potentially undermine the regime in Pyongyang. Such chaos along China’s northeast border, according to this view, is a far greater threat than North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capability. But there are important reasons why CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and his Politburo Standing Committee colleagues should reject such advice and reconsider Chinese policy.
First, North Korea is making progress toward developing a miniaturized nuclear device that could be mounted an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten U.S. security and that of its allies. In a public declaration of its achievement, Pyongyang announced that the country had used a smaller, lighter weapon, and available seismic data indicates that the test produced a greater explosive yield than the prior two tests. In conjunction with the successful ballistic missile launch last December, this should raise alarm bells in Beijing. U.S. and regional reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development so far as resulted in increased missile defense deployments in the region that have eroded China’s nuclear deterrent; strengthened U.S. military cooperation with Japan and South Korea; a decision by South Korea to extend the range of its ballistic missiles from 300 to 800 kilometers, which enables Seoul to conceivably strike all of North Korea as well as parts of northeast China; and the conduct of more military exercises on China’s periphery. As Pyongyang progresses toward successfully mating a nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile, the U.S. is bound to respond in ways that will cause further deterioration of Chinese security. If an existential threat to the U.S. homeland emerges, North Korea proliferates to other regions, or Japan and/or South Korea opt to go nuclear, Beijing may regret having not taken action sooner to forestall such developments.
Second, the decision by Kim Jung-un to defy China’s warnings and proceed with this nuclear test should prompt Beijing to re-think its assessment of North Korea’s new leader. Optimism that the thirty year old son of Kim Jong-il would steer the country in a new direction, including opening up and reforming its economy and respecting Chinese interests, has been pervasive among Chinese analysts. Although Kim Jong-un has introduced changes in style, such as being seen in public with his wife and delivering a televised New Year address to the citizens of North Korea rather than issuing the speech through the print media as was his father’s practice, he has yet to demonstrate a willingness to implement serious economic reforms. Like his father, young Kim has proven that he will not hesitate to take actions that are contrary to Chinese interests. Pyongyang assumes that China will continue to shield it from consequential international sanctions and maintain business as usual in Sino-Korean relations. Kim is testing China’s new supreme leader, Xi Jinping. If Beijing does not act early to impose penalties for such defiance, its influence over Pyongyang will continue to wane.
Third, in recent years, Chinese public opinion has been shifting against North Korea. Both the second and third nuclear tests were conducted approximately 100 km. from China’s border, prompting anxiety among residents in northeast China about possible contamination of soil and water. Chinese Weibo users are urging the government to reconsider its assistance to the regime. Although there are undoubtedly some groups in China that staunchly support North Korea regardless of its actions, a growing number of people recognize the costs that Beijing pays for its policy.
Fourth, President Obama is just beginning his second term in office and Madame Park Geun-hye is about to be inaugurated president in South Korea. An opportunity exists for Xi Jinping to signal his commitment to strengthen both of these relationships. In the case of ties with Washington, concerns have abounded about a rising mutual trust deficit and consideration is being devoted to how to build a new type of major power relationship. Dialogue, agreement on a new label for the relationship, or signing another joint statement can only contribute to trust building on the margins. Cooperation to reign in North Korea’s provocations and persuade Pyongyang to return to the agreements reached under the Six Party Talks would serve as an example to the respective publics and elite of the U.S., China and the all the world’s nations of effective U.S.-Chinese collaboration to strengthen global security. A successful case of cooperation will have a positive impact on the overall US-China relationship; it will be more consequential than hundreds of hours of dialogue.
Finally, if Beijing plays a proactive role to create a more stable security environment in Northeast Asia, this will be welcomed by all of China’s neighbors. Rising doubts about China’s adherence to a peaceful rise will be eased, and Beijing will be seen as a provider of international public goods and a responsible international player.
China’s long-standing approach to responding to North Korea’s provocations by seeking to do the minimum to satisfy the demands of the international community while shielding North Korea from punitive measures that could destabilize the regime and preserving Sino-DPRK ties no longer serves Beijing’s interests. It’s time for Xi Jinping and his colleagues to re-think policy toward North Korea.
Bonnie Glaser is Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).