By Wang Chenjun & Richard McGregor
Of all the countries on the sidelines of the Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, few were watching more intently than China.
The Chinese saying – “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” – has often been used to highlight the intense friendship between North Korea and China during the Korean War.
But the 2017-2018 nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula provoked a debate in Beijing about the wisdom of continuing to support Pyongyang. A number of prominent scholars openly argued that the relationship was an ideological relic that Beijing should abandon in favour of closer ties with Seoul.
But despite that uproar, Beijing has not substantially altered its strategy. This is based on four pillars:
Peace and stability prior to denuclearisation
None of the countries in the six-party talks (the DPRK along with the US, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) believes today that Pyongyang will abandon its nuclear weapons. Despite that, China still places a priority on a stable and peaceful Korean Peninsula over its denuclearisation.
China maintains a “three nos” principle: no war, no instability, no nukes, and it has long been involved in measures to scale back any threat of military escalation on the peninsula.
That’s not only because there would be a massive flow of refugees into China. There is also the threat of contamination from the activation of North Korea’s chemical weapons and the damage that could be caused by Pyongyang’s thousands of agents overseas, including in China. A collapsing regime could plunge the region into a cross-border terrorist conflict.
History tells us that the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 helped deter Mao Zedong from invading Taiwan, which he had been preparing to do since the year before.
Only a few days after the North Korean military invasion of the south, then president Harry Truman deployed ships to Taipei to protect the Nationalist Government in exile. When the North Koreans were pushed back to the Chinese border in October 1950, Mao had no choice but to shift from offensive war preparations against Taiwan to resisting America and protecting the homeland.
Beijing would prefer to take control of Taiwan without military conflict. A sudden collapse of the North Korean regime or conflict on the peninsula may make this cross-strait problem more complicated.
The uncertainty of South Korea’s position
Many South Koreans view Beijing’s engagement with Pyongyang as a contradictory relationship that Pyongyang exploits to its own ends. Chinese financial and trade support effectively facilitated North Korea’s nuclear program by keeping its economy afloat and thus fractured the chances of a reunified peninsula.
Shen Zhihua, a famous Cold-War historian, suggested in New York Times that China should shift its strategy to “win over [South Korean] public sentiment and opinion”. Since “North Korea is China’s latent enemy, South Korea could be China’s friend”.
But China worries about the reliability of South Korea, a US ally. In other words, is China ready to risk having a South Korea-dominated unified peninsula?
At the minimum, China would demand a neutral Korea. A unified peninsula drifting into the United States’ arms would break the strategic balance in the region – from Beijing’s perspective. Hence, a divided Peninsula still remains optimal for Chinese interests at the moment.
Caught in the middle, Korea is historically a strategic plaything in a great power competition. While working under a multilateral framework, China’s primary strategic concern is to keep the peninsula out of US hands.
No matter what small matters Trump and Kim might agree on, Washington is unlikely to meet Pyongyang’s major demands and vice versa. The Hanoi summit’s failure is evidence of this. But North Korea’s troublesomeness has caused a split between South Korea’s accommodating policy and the United States’ tougher line.
The weakening of America’s Asian alliance network without a sudden US withdrawal favours China’s interests. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited China four times – twice in prepping for US-North Korea summits. This has reduced China’s anxiety about being excluded from the process and placed Beijing at centre stage.
Despite Trump engaging directly with Kim, China has kept itself in the driver’s seat.
So far, China’s post-Cold War foreign policy on the Korean Peninsula is based on a geopolitical calculus.
The “blood alliance” of the China-North Korean relationship is “a thing of the past”. But Beijing’s generous support to its difficult neighbour will stay intact into the foreseeable future.
This article first appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute. It was republished with permission. For the original click here.
Wang Chenjun is an intern at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
Richard McGregor is a journalist and author reporting on the top-level politics and economies of east Asia, primarily China and Japan.