Why China Won't Abandon North Korea Anytime Soon

Beijing suspects that Washington wants to weaken China in the region by exploiting friction between China and its troublesome neighbor.
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A news broadcast shows Kim Jong Un at a parade in Pyongyang on April 15.
A news broadcast shows Kim Jong Un at a parade in Pyongyang on April 15.
JUNG YEON-JE via Getty Images

SEOUL — During the latest “fire and fury” standoff between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, an editorial in China’s Global Times declared: ”[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral.” Washington and its allies were keenly interested in the part about China staying “neutral.” They interpreted it as a vow not to intervene if the North Korea crisis became violent.

But an important question must be asked: Should Washington count on this?

This may sound simple but it has significant strategic implications for both the U.S. and China, as well as the broader East Asia security landscape. It means that China would look the other way as the U.S. reduces North Korea to rubble. It could also mean that China would tolerate U.S. military operations that would lead to regime change in Pyongyang.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time the Global Times published this viewpoint. It did so in April too, amid the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. At that time, there was a widespread expectation that North Korea would launch another nuclear test. Trump was rounding up advanced military assets near North Korea, including strategic bombers and aircraft carriers. Rumors of the so-called “April crisis” on the Korean Peninsula were quickly drenching the air in Seoul. Some expats in South Korea evacuated. War correspondents such as Lester Holt descended upon Seoul to cover American and South Korean troops training for potential combat with North Korea, some 15 miles from the DMZ.

“For China, the North Korean problem is not so much about North Korea per se, but a part of Beijing’s bigger regional strategy in dealing with the U.S.”

Against this backdrop, the Global Times editorial sounded like a warning from the Chinese government to North Korea, a red line Pyongyang shouldn’t cross. But it wasn’t an official policy statement, and there is no evidence that this is the Chinese government’s official position. The Global Times doesn’t represent the views of the Chinese government, although it is sometimes used as a political tool ― an effective one ― for shaping perceptions and sparking reactions for outside observers.

The Chinese government has not given any confirmation to the U.S. government regarding what it will actually do in case a war breaks out. During the Korean War, the U.S. didn’t expect China to intervene to assist North Korea, but the U.S. was wrong. China knows that maintaining strategic ambiguity will make the U.S. think carefully before starting a conflict with North Korea.

When reading the tea leaves, even in a newspaper like the Global Times, it is important to ask who the intended audience is. In this case, it’s Pyongyang, not Washington. This was a warning to Pyongyang to dissuade it from carrying out a reckless campaign to bomb Guam.

China is accustomed to resorting to harsh rhetoric to achieve political goals. In terms of propaganda and scare tactics, China’s Global Times is similar to North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper in terms of propaganda and scare tactics, and the two countries are ideological twins in the socialist tradition of the Cold War. The Global Times has urged China on numerous occasions to cut off crude oil supply to North Korea, but this has never materialized.

Trump and Xi Jinping in Florida on April 7.
Trump and Xi Jinping in Florida on April 7.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Two important questions remain: Is there indeed an agreement between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army regarding North Korea? I once raised this question to Stephen Bosworth, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who also served as the special representative for North Korea policy in the Obama administration. His answer was no.

The second question is whether the nature of today’s relationship between China and North Korea can still be defined as an alliance or not. The answer is yes. Remember that China and North Korea have had a formal alliance, which obligates China to come to North Korea’s defense when the latter is under attack, since 1961. There has been a deluge of news reports that China’s patience with its former Cold War ally has hit its limit and that China is now regarding North Korea as a strategic liability rather than an asset. However, China has never officially proposed to terminate its alliance.

Consider the case of Deng Yuwen, who was the deputy editor of Study Times, the official publication of the Central Party School of the Communist Party, a prestigious Communist institution that grooms promising mid-career officials. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, Deng wrote an article for the Financial Times titled “China should abandon North Korea.” Given his affiliation with the Study Times, many observers suspected that his column was meant to serve as the Chinese government’s public signal that it would finally ditch its troublesome ally. Why else would Deng risk his career by writing such an unorthodox article? I was intrigued. Through an intermediary, I arranged to sit down with Deng. He told me that he had been placed on probation, and his desk had been removed from his office. Soon afterward, he was fired. “Deng argued that we should abandon North Korea,” a Chinese scholar in Beijing told me at the time, “but it was him who was abandoned.”

“North Korea’s strategic value to China is bound to increase.”

Some argue that the Sino-North Korea alliance is a relic from the Cold War, but that world no longer exists. China today is not the same China that it once was. Beijing doesn’t think about North Korea the way it did during the Cold War either. In the end, some argue, the treaty is just a piece of paper that has lost its relevance.

But then we should ask why, after the Cold War, China did not terminate its alliance with North Korea. This is a salient question especially because China, since the start of the reform and opening period, has officially pursued the “non-alliance” stance in its foreign policy. Apparently, China attached so much importance to this policy that it didn’t renew its alliance treaty with the Soviet Union after it expired in 1979, and China and Russia are still not allies today. Fu Ying, the former Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom and now the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, reiterated this in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. But when it comes to North Korea, China has been very careful in choosing words.

Contrary to the popular narrative, a good number of Chinese analysts don’t think North Korea’s nuclear armament itself automatically constitutes a threat to China. One analyst put it to me this way: “Do you know how many countries surrounding China have nuclear weapons? India has them. Pakistan has them. Russia has them too. Adding one more country isn’t a problem per se, as long as you can maintain friendly ties with the country.” This attitude, albeit not openly discussed, hints that China may be willing to tolerate North Korea’s nuclear armament as long as China regards the U.S. as the bigger existential threat.

A South Korean television broadcast reports on a North Korean missile launch on July 4.
A South Korean television broadcast reports on a North Korean missile launch on July 4.
Chung Sung-Jun via Getty Images

For China, the contemporary North Korean problem is not so much about North Korea per se, but a part of Beijing’s bigger regional strategy in dealing with the U.S. In geopolitical terms, China’s North Korean policy stance is less dictated by North Korea’s actual behavior and more by China’s perceived geopolitical and international politics vis-à-vis the U.S. As of today, China and the U.S. are heading toward a relationship more characterized by competition than cooperation. Under such circumstance, China’s cooperation on the North Korean issue would be further moderated. This explains the many inconsistencies between the punitive rhetoric China publicly displays and its actual actions.

Chinese analysts think the strategic competition for leadership in East Asia, as well as mutual mistrust with Washington, is likely to intensify in the foreseeable future amid Washington’s “pivot to Asia,” Japan’s move toward militarization and the ongoing consultations between Washington and Seoul about the U.S.-led advanced missile defense system in South Korea. All of that indicates that Washington is trying to strengthen its military alliances with Japan and South Korea. In this situation, North Korea’s strategic value to China is, ironically, bound to increase.

China believes that Trump is following the tradition of his predecessors in dealing with North Korea: to exploit friction between China and its troublesome neighbor Pyongyang and to strengthen Washington’s own regional positioning. Against the backdrop, China suspects that it is Washington’s ploy to let China cripple North Korea in order to weaken China in the region. All in all, even though North Korea has recently been a discomfort for China, China is not ready to ignore its bigger strategic value, let alone give up on Pyongyang.

“China sees North Korea’s provocations as destabilizing but regards a collapse of North Korea as an even greater problem.”

Trump once famously said China has “total control” over North Korea. But whether China will utilize such leverage over North Korea is quite another matter. Washington promotes a view that China, more than ever, has to realize that if Kim Jong Un’s North Korea proceeds with a more robust nuclear weapons program, and Beijing doesn’t exert real pressures on Pyongyang, it will result in increasingly negative repercussions for China’s own interests. Unfortunately, this doesn’t square with China’s own perceptions.

China sees North Korea’s provocations as destabilizing but regards a collapse of North Korea as an even greater problem. Further, Beijing thinks the U.S. poses the gravest existential threat to China’s security and global ambition.

China made a goodwill gesture by joining the U.S and the international community in the latest U.N. resolution to punish North Korea, but Beijing made sure it wouldn’t fundamentally harm China’s interests by excluding the crude oil embargo from the sanctions list. Chinese mistrust of the U.S. remains the primary obstacle to cooperation on North Korea. As a former senior U.S. official, who dealt with Chinese intelligence, once lamented to me: “We haven’t invaded China for the last 40 years. Why can’t China trust us?”

Looking forward, if North Korea’s various provocations, including the latest ICBM test, don’t directly trigger a shift in China’s policy toward Pyongyang, then it may be reasonable to speculate that China is willing to accommodate North Korea’s belligerence in the future too, as long as its perceived security environment in the East Asian region persists. This, then, indicates that the current approach by the Trump administration to lean on China to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue is unattainable.

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