China's caution to Kim is no empty threat
Zhu Feng says China's stinging rebuke of North Korea's provocations marks a shift in its approach towards a wayward ally - Beijing has signalled it will take action if pushed, perhaps even in concert with Washington
After nearly a month of belligerent bluster from North Korea, China appears to have had enough, ending its silence about North Korea's brinkmanship and suddenly roaring its disapproval of its ally's reckless threats. China's exceptional tough talk does not necessarily mean that it intends to abandon Kim Jong-un's regime; but, at the very least, it does suggest that a radical shift in China's policy towards North Korea might no longer be unthinkable.
When Foreign Minister Wang Yi exchanged phone calls with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last Saturday, he expressed China's rejection of rhetoric and action aimed at destabilising the northeast Asian region. Moreover, Wang made it clear that China would not allow "troublemaking on China's doorstep".
The next day, President Xi Jinping, speaking to an assembly of primarily Asian political and business leaders at the annual government-sponsored Boao Forum, declared that no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain". Xi did not mention any country by name, but his implicit condemnation of North Korea was clear to all.
Before these official rebukes, there had been much speculation about whether China would risk a fundamental change in its relations with North Korea, the socialist "little brother" that it continues to subsidise heavily. Following the rare display of open indignation by Xi and Wang, such speculation has now become stronger than ever.
Some ask what "value" Kim's hermit kingdom provides that prevents China from acting decisively; others wonder to what extent Chinese leaders' domestic concerns continue to inhibit their willingness to switch course on North Korea.
In fact, China's leaders have agonised over North Korea's recent provocations. They have been struggling to persuade the Kim regime to temper its volatility and accept a "grand bargain": official recognition and normalisation of relations with all of its neighbours, and with the US, in exchange for denuclearisation. Indeed, this has led to considerable squabbling between the two nations in recent years.
China understands that North Korea's intractability is rooted in its deep isolation from the world, mass deception of its people, and Kim's fear of losing control of a country that only his family has ruled. So the country's rulers have come to believe that they can gain attention and resources only through provocation.
For China, the Kim regime's survival can be assured only if it follows China's lead in reforming and opening up. But, faced with South Korea's shining democracy and booming economy, the Chinese model is irrelevant to the North: following it would mean acknowledging the South's supremacy on the Korean Peninsula, and thus an instant loss of legitimacy.
During the past two decades, North Korea's leaders have experimented lightly with minimal "reform", only to retreat from it quickly. China patiently bore this pattern of intermittent brinkmanship and timid reform, largely owing to its belief that the risks posed by the Kim dynasty could be controlled as long as China did not cut off the regime's lifeline of oil, food and other necessities.
More important, China's leaders believed that by shielding the North from US pressure, it was acting in the interest of its own national security.
But here China's analysis has been completely wrong, for it underestimates the Kim regime's unmanageable desperation whenever it believes that its survival is in doubt. Moreover, North Korea does not want to be beholden to any power, including China. So it exploits China's goodwill and national-security concerns, and even regards Chinese patronage as its due.
A further complication concerns the nuclear aspirations of North Korea. Pyongyang appears to be convinced that, with nuclear weapons, it can maintain diplomatic independence, and that China, fearing nuclear blackmail, will never abandon it.
Now, however, it is North Korea's turn to make a mistake. Kim's childish tantrums have genuinely enraged China. Yes, the country's leaders have sometimes complained about the heavy burden of subsidising North Korea; but, until now, they had never shown such open disgust with the North's performance.
China's warning that it will not allow North Korean "troublemaking on China's doorstep" can be considered the equivalent of a "yellow card" in soccer. China has not decided to abandon North Korea. But the warning is a stern one for Kim: China may send him to the sidelines if he does not change his behaviour.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit Beijing this weekend. It is now time for American and Chinese leaders to negotiate a real and viable exit from the current crisis, while productively exploring ways to restart the denuclearisation process on the Korean Peninsula.
If Kim's bombast and nuclear threats lead to China-US bonding over a joint North Korea settlement, the entire world will be the safer for it.
Zhu Feng is deputy director of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies and professor of international relations at Peking University. Copyright: Project Syndicate