How China is using North Korea in its long game against America
As Beijing worries about a power shift, it’s expected to play a key role providing backing for Pyongyang and helping it to emerge from economic isolation
Despite Pyongyang’s record of using diplomacy to manipulate major powers, analysts say Beijing may have few good options other than to throw its weight behind another round of denuclearisation talks to maintain ties with its communist neighbour and secure its regional influence.
While China gave its support to the first summit between North Korea and a sitting US president, Beijing is also deeply concerned that the rapprochement could lead to Washington seeking closer relations with Pyongyang.
After that landmark summit with Kim Jong-un on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump said “adversaries can become friends”, and that “the past does not have to define the future”.
Beijing fears a scenario where Pyongyang could be used against it by Washington, shifting the power dynamic at its expense – like in the 1970s when the United States normalised ties with China at the height of the cold war against the Soviet Union.
From China’s perspective, North Korea – despite its geopolitical importance – has been and will remain a useful card in the long game against America as their structural rivalry unfolds, according to Chinese diplomatic sources.
“The growing competition with the US will be China’s real strategic challenge in the years or even decades to come, while North Korea is just a sideshow and a temporary issue along the way,” said one source in Beijing. “The North Korea problem can and will be solved one way or another, even though it remains unclear how that will happen at the moment,” he added.
With tensions over North Korea easing after the Trump-Kim talks in Singapore this week, Beijing is now likely to focus on how to set up a long-overdue mechanism to manage its spiralling conflicts with Washington over trade, politics and security.
“The intermittent crisis over North Korea, which has plagued China-US ties for decades, is probably in large part due to the absence of an effective mechanism,” said a Beijing-based international relations analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Apart from providing political backing for the North during upcoming negotiations with the US and its allies, China is also expected to play a key role in helping Pyongyang emerge from its economic isolation and to renew security pledges in support of its cold war ally.
While relations between the communist neighbours have deteriorated in recent years, China still sees North Korea as holding a unique place in its foreign policy.
“I think China may be concerned about losing their leverage over North Korea and fears that North Korea and the US may enter into an anti-Chinese alignment,” said Charles Armstrong, a historian and expert on Korean affairs at Columbia University.
“There is little love between North Korea and China, but China wants to avoid a hostile state on its border, whether a pro-US Korea under Seoul’s direction or a pro-US Pyongyang,” he said.
Taylor Fravel, a member of the security studies programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agreed. “China prefers a divided peninsula with a strong and prosperous North Korea over a divided peninsula with a weak and poor North Korea or a [unified] peninsula under South Korea that maintains its alliance with the United States,” he said. “For this reason, if North Korea improves ties with the US, the outcome could actually reinforce the division of the peninsula that China prefers.”
Beijing could even renew its mutual defence treaty with North Korea when it expires in 2021 if ties with Pyongyang do not significantly worsen, according to Fravel.
“North Korea holds a special place in China’s foreign relations, not just because of the security issues on the peninsula, but also as one of the last remaining socialist states in the world. Thus, the treaty is an important symbol of China’s ties with its socialist neighbours,” he said.
Soon after the 1950-53 Korean war ended, Beijing signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Pyongyang in 1961 – China’s only legally binding bilateral security pact still in force, under which Beijing pledged to provide military aid in the event of a conflict.
But China has been ambivalent about defending North Korea in the case of renewed conflict and also on the issue of whether it would renew the mutual defence pact.
“China could have terminated the treaty at any time in the past five years [when bilateral ties were further strained over Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear provocations] but did not, which suggests it would likely renew the treaty,” Fravel said.
Other analysts are more cautious about the treaty’s prospects and Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang in the long run.
“Even if military threats are raised on the peninsula, I do not expect a high-profile renewal of the China-North Korea treaty relationship at this stage, as Beijing would probably prefer to keep things flexible and low-key,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow in the Asia programme with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He added that if the peace talks failed to make progress and Trump escalated military fears aggressively and unilaterally, Beijing could see it as a move to strengthen deterrence.
Most Chinese analysts took a prudent view of Beijing’s future ties with Pyongyang.
“China and the US have had decades-long cooperation on North Korea, which played a role in stabilising bilateral ties. And it’s true that China has always wanted to play the North Korea card,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. “But history has shown that Beijing’s influence and leverage over Pyongyang is rather limited,” even though China is still North Korea’s diplomatic backer and economic lifeline, he said.
Zhang Liangui, a North Korea specialist with the Central Party School in Beijing, warned that despite his sabre-rattling, Kim appears to be a rational and shrewd politician who knows how to push ahead with his nuclear ambitions – and how to pit major powers like China, the US and its allies against each other.
That calculated push by the North for international recognition as a de facto nuclear-armed state should not be underestimated, according to Sun Xingjie, a Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University.
“As a long-time ally, North Korea knows China well and understands how nuclear weapons could fundamentally change the balance of power in international relations,” Sun said. “Had there not been nuclear weapons, can you imagine world powers paying so much attention to North Korea – or that there would even have been a Trump-Kim summit?”
As Republican Senator Tom Cotton put it, North Korea is different from Iran, Cuba or “other two-bit rogue regimes” which do not have nuclear weapons.
“Once North Korea had nuclear weapons, once they have missiles that can deliver them to use, I would liken it to past presidents sitting down with Soviet dictators,” he said in an interview after the summit.
Schoff, of the Carnegie Endowment, also said that although the North Korea card was real and important, “there is a limit, because war is in no one’s interest, and an economic and diplomatic breakthrough with the North can pay dividends to both”.
But analysts believe there could be more lessons to learn on negotiations with North Korea, given its pattern since the early 1990s of promising to denuclearise multiple times in exchange for something – especially long-term regime survival – then ultimately reneging on the agreements.
Jung Pak, SK-Korea foundation chair in Korea studies at the Brookings Institution, said there was little accountability for Kim to cease and dismantle his nuclear weapons programme, which is critical to regime security – his primary concern.
“In effect, maximum pressure has morphed into maximum manoeuvring space for Kim,” she said.
Schoff agreed. “A key lesson is that written agreements don’t mean much when dealing with North Korea, and there is so little mutual trust that even reasonable delays in follow-through by one side or the other risks a collapse of the whole deal,” he said.