Has North Korea become more of a liability than an asset to China?

Cary Huang says Beijing needs to take action now to halt Pyongyang’s dangerous nuclear ambitions, or risk losing credibility as a responsible power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:59pm

Rarely has an event united the world the way North Korea’s nuclear test did, as denunciations of Pyongyang rang out from Washington and Brussels to Moscow and Beijing. It was also a rare diplomatic loss of face for China’s leadership, as their huge political investment failed to win any respect or compromise from their ostensibly communist ally.

North Korea may have explained its recent hydrogen bomb test as a response to US “hostility” but, in a way, it was a defiant act against China as it underscored the fact that the self-styled “Supreme Leader”, boyish Kim Jong-un, does not really care what “Big Daddy” Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) wants. It was also a protest against China, as Beijing was not warned in advance. In reaction, a foreign ministry spokesman denounced the test as “risky, irresponsible and reckless”.

READ MORE: South Korean leader calls for China’s help to punish North Korea

China has long played a crucial role in maintaining the Kim family’s status as the world’s only Stalinist dynasty. Beijing should also have leverage with its fellow Marxist-Leninist neighbour, as it is estimated to provide up to 90 per cent of North Korea’s energy imports, 80 per cent of its consumer goods and 45 per cent of its food, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

However, China has long adopted a “carrot and stick” policy of sanctions and aid with a belief that it could manipulate the embattled regime for its own interest. In the wake of each of its three previous tests, Beijing repeated a worn playbook by making public denouncements without any escalated action or sanctions. The West believes China’s political and material support has rendered international sanctions ineffective.

But North Korea’s latest act suggests Beijing is a victim this time, as Pyongyang’s nuclear programme could do more harm than good to China’s interests.

Beijing’s worst nightmare would be a united Korean peninsula with Washington extending its influence northwards, to China’s doorstep

Such diplomatic failings largely derive from China’s conflicted ideological thinking and poor geopolitical considerations. Beijing worries that tough sanctions would lead to the collapse of one of the few surviving communist regimes, which would undermine its own legitimacy at home. China also fears the resulting civil strife and refugee crisis at its borders. Its worst nightmare would be a united Korean peninsula with Washington extending its influence northwards, to China’s doorstep.

But such fears seem increasingly groundless. First, Beijing and Pyongyang share little common ideology, beyond communism by name. Second, China has maintained better relations with South Korea than with the North. Xi and his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye have, for instance, held six summit meetings in the past three years, while Xi has yet to meet Kim. Finally, only a united international community can deal with challenges from the world’s most isolated nation, which counts China as its only supporter.

The issue is whether Pyongyang is more of a liability than an asset to China. Having a nuclear arsenal just a few hundred kilometres from its borders would make China very uncomfortable, with most major cities within range and the launch button in the hands of the world’s most unpredictable leader.

It is in China’s interests to stop such a threat. If it does not act, it risks losing credibility as a rising and responsible power. Worse, Beijing may also face responses from other countries that are not in its best interests – such as if Japan and/or South Korea decided to develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities, or if Tokyo or Seoul agreed to permanently host US nuclear weapons, or if they wanted the US to deploy its ballistic missile defence system in the region, all of which Beijing steadfastly opposes.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post