North 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 recognize that they no longer need to succumb to their unruly neighbor’s blackmail.
In carrying out the test, the North Koreans have once again compromised 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-nuclearizing 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-Defense 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 misbehavior – 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.
© Project Syndicate