Despite the pomp, China and North Korea are now more business partners than brothers in arms
- The show of friendship when Kim Jong-un hosted Xi Jinping last month in a Chinese leader’s first-ever state visit cannot cover up the cracks in the traditionally ‘teeth and lips’ relationship between the two communist allies
Against that backdrop, the spate of Xi-Kim summitry suggests that the allies see value in cementing – and to be seen cementing – their relationship.
Nevertheless, the pomp and ceremony of Xi’s Pyongyang trip does not mean the rebooting of the two countries’ cold war-era alliance, of the kind seen during the Korean war in 1950-53. The deep suspicion and distrust that have accumulated over the long years of Chinese-Korean relations, mixed with feelings of gratitude and misgivings, favour and resentment, cannot be so easily unravelled.
That relationship goes back more than a millennium to the Han dynasty, when the Chinese exported goods as well as technology and ways of thinking to its neighbour, notably in papermaking technology and, probably most significantly, Confucian teachings. For a long time, Chinese emperors saw Korean kingdoms as protectorates while the kingdoms served as tributaries of the imperial court.
In the more recent past, China shed much blood over Korea, in two Sino-Japanese wars in 1895 and 1937, the second of which merged into World War II. Some historians have described China-Korea relations as like those between close relatives, rather than neighbours. However, some Koreans see China as an enemy of a millennium, and Japan as an enemy of a century.
The clearest evidence of the superficial nature of the alliance are the weak links in two significant areas – the military and ideology. There are no defence exchanges or joint exercises between the two militaries. The rare exchanges between the party organs and institutions may also suggest precious little exchange on ideology.
Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on this topic since the early 1990s