Another North Korean nuclear test, another round of demands that China bring Pyongyang to heel. Said Secretary of State John Kerry: Beijing’s policy “has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.” Alas, his approach is worse than ineffective. It likely ensures that the PRC will ignore Washington’s wishes.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be the most vexing problem of U.S. foreign policy. Three successive U.S. presidents have insisted that the DPRK simply cannot, must not, develop nuclear weapons. Yet it has. And there is virtually no chance the North will negotiate away its growing arsenal assembled at such great cost.
So attention naturally shifts toward the People’s Republic of China, which joined Washington in criticizing the blast. The PRC is the most important investor in the North and provides substantial energy and food assistance. Beijing also has helped protect the DPRK by weakening proposed UN sanctions and enforcing those imposed with less than due diligence. If only China would get tough, runs the argument, the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang would have to give way.
Too bad Chinese intervention is not the panacea many appear to believe. So far Beijing has demonstrated little inclination to act. Even if it did, there’s no guarantee that doing so would solve the North Korean “problem.”
Contra common belief in Washington, the United States is in no position to dictate to the PRC. It doesn’t matter that American policymakers are convinced of their righteousness and China’s complicity with evil. Beijing doesn’t agree. And this authoritarian government, backed by a nationalistic population while enjoying growing economic, diplomatic and military clout isn’t going to let anyone—especially a country seen as trying to “contain” China—dictate PRC policy.
Threats are only likely to make the Chinese leadership more recalcitrant. Donald Trump insisted: “if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.” One can imagine how the United States would react if presented with a similar demand. An upraised middle finger comes to mind.
In fact, Beijing has perfectly understandable reasons to avoid wrecking the North Korean state. Denouncing the PRC for being unreasonable isn’t going to help. After all, American officials cannot credibly claim that their policies toward the Korean peninsula are unrelated to their perception of America’s national interests. If the administration wants to enlist China’s aid, Washington must convince the PRC that acting is in China’s, not America’s, best interest.
That requires addressing Beijing’s concerns.
While unpredictable, obstinate and irritating, so far the DPRK is not a major problem for China. The Kim Jong-un regime has cut the refugee flow across the Yalu in half. Economic cooperation remains profitable despite persistent North Korean unreasonableness. The North disrupts American regional dominance and forces Seoul and Washington to beg for assistance in dealing with the DPRK.
Even Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal poses no obvious threat to China. Any North Korean weapons will be pointed south. Moreover, while it is widely presumed that the PRC was not informed of the latest test ahead of time, high level envoys recently passed both ways between the two countries. So Kim may have alerted his reluctant patron—without, of course, asking its permission—making his actions appear less destabilizing, even though still unwelcome.
Why, then, should the PRC sacrifice its political influence and economic interests? A Chinese cut-off of energy and food would cause great hardship in the North. But that would not guarantee Pyongyang’s compliance. A half million or more people died of starvation during the late 1990s without any change in DPRK policy. Renewed privation would be a blow to Kim, who has promised economic growth, but the leadership has never based its policy on protecting its people from hardship. In contrast, from its founding the regime jealously guarded its independence even from its major communist benefactors.
Thus, the DPRK leadership may refuse to bend, forcing Beijing to act on its threats. The result might be a return to the 1990s, with a horrific collapse in living conditions but regime survival—and continued development of nuclear weapons. In which case China would have sacrificed its relationship with its sole ally for no reason.
Even worse, from Beijing’s standpoint, Vladimir Putin’s Russia might step in as North Korea’s savior. Moscow and Pyongyang recently revived their relationship and Putin might decide to preserve this important challenge to the United States. In fact, Moscow’s UN ambassador insisted that any new sanctions be "proportionate," not what Washington wanted to hear. If so, the PRC again would find that it had compromised its interests for nothing.
Or the North Korean regime might collapse, bringing to mind the old warning about getting what you wish for. The consequences could be violent conflict, social chaos, loose nukes, and mass refugee flows. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans already have crossed the Yalu; starvation highlighted by combat among armed factions could create a human tsunami. The PRC might feel forced to intervene militarily to stabilize the North—and Chinese forces might not be able to leave quickly. Indeed, Beijing might decide to maintain 'its' Korea under different leadership rather than accept a unified Western-leaning state on its border.