China and North Korea: No War, No Instability, No Nukes

Following North Korea’s third nuclear test, John Garnaut of the Age writes that if people in the West are expecting China to take a strong stand against the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, they will be disappointed:

Those old Cold War patterns of great power rivalry, existential fear and buffer states are re-emerging in more complex form today. Beijing is once again locked in a contest with Washington for regional influence, or domination, and Pyongyang is one of its only strategic friends. Xi, would like to demonstrate who has the upper hand in the relationship. He may even enjoy inflicting a modicum of pain. But the gentle tap on the wrist he gave his recalcitrant ally last night – “all sides” should respond “calmly, through talks” – shows the underlying strategic calculus remains unchanged.

In any case, Chinese analysts are convinced that North Korea will not give up its nuclear program, its sole source of leverage, deterrence and self esteem, no matter what threats and incentives China might attempt.

“I don’t think there will be much change in China’s policy towards North Korea,” says Cai Jian, Professor of Korean studies at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University.

“As China grows, the United States adjusts its strategy towards East Asia to deter and encircle China,” he says. “What China needs is the survival and existence of the North Korean regime to help China maintain the regional balance of power.”

An article in the New York Times argues that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are an early test of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy priorities:

…As impatient as China might be with North Korea, there is little chance that the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, will move quickly to change the nation’s long-held policy of propping up the walled-off government that has long served as a buffer against closer intrusion by the United States on the Korean Peninsula.

The Chinese military, and to a lesser extent the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, assert strong influence on China’s Korean policy, and both these powerful entities prefer to keep North Korea close at hand, Chinese and American analysts say.

While the People’s Liberation Army does not even conduct military exercises with the North Koreans — the government in the North forbids such contact with outsiders — Chinese military strategists adhere to the doctrine that they cannot afford to abandon their ally, no matter how bad its behavior, analysts here say.

At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party looks upon the North Korean Communist Party — led by Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the nation’s founder — as a fraternal brotherhood. Indeed, relations between the two countries are conducted largely between the two parties rather than through the more normal diplomatic channels between the two foreign ministries.

A post on the Washington Post blog argues that China’s continued support of North Korea comes down to six words: No war, no instability, no nukes.