Editor’s Note: Yvonne Chiu is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), and formerly an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. The views expressed here are solely hers.
One constant question in East Asian geopolitics is how much influence China actually has over North Korea.
With Pyongyang’s active pursuit of nuclear weapons and last year’s spate of provocative missile and nuclear tests, as well as its unexpected offer of direct talks between presidents Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, it has become clear that China’s control is limited, which – while worrisome – should not be surprising.
China has been trying to have it both ways with North Korea for a long time, on two issues: China wants North Korea to be weak, but not so weak that it would collapse, and incorrigible enough to keep the US occupied, but not so dangerous that it actually starts a war.
On the first issue, China wants to maintain the status quo of its official ally, because it fears a collapse of the Kim’s regime could send an influx of refugees over the bordering Yalu and Tumen Rivers and into the Liaoning and Jilin provinces of China.
Such an influx might destabilize those provinces, if not broader swaths of China.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also would not countenance a unified Korea on its border, as reunification would most likely entail the domination of liberal democratic South Korea’s political system, government, economy, and way of life, all of which are officially anathema to the CCP.
To those ends, it is in China’s interests to keep a fragile and sickly Kim regime afloat, which is why it has over the years provided an enormous amount of vital food aid and half of North Korea’s imports, as well as avenues for North Korea’s exports and much-needed money-laundering.
Bad, but not that bad
On the second point, China wants the Kim dynasty to be a distracting force against its primary rival in the region, the US, but not be in a position to actually start a war, let alone with nuclear weapons.
North Korea has successfully tested a small atomic bomb (although most likely not yet a hydrogen one, despite its claims) and inter-continental missiles (even if their accuracy is still poor), and it is likely that North Korea will be able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile within a few years, if not sooner.
These developments have certainly kept the US and its East Asian allies busy, not only trying to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but also negotiating their own alliances.
On both fronts, China has not been able to maintain balance, and that is because it has made the same mistake that many dominant (or would-be dominant) powers have made, again and again: Client states have minds and interests of their own, and they cannot be kept under control forever.
Kim doesn’t want to be weak
Recent diplomatic and military defections from North Korea raise the possibility that the regime is in worse shape than previously expected.
And although Kim’s sudden overtures for denuclearisation and peaceful reunification yielded a historic meeting last month – the first ever between the current North and South Korean leaders – the resulting declaration is rather short on details and process.
The dramatic stagecraft of this summit combined with the vagueness of the communique may indicate that Kim is attempting to cover-up a collapsing regime and/or setbacks in its nuclear program.
China’s miscalculations on North Korea are compounded by technological developments in warfare.
It used to be that the “weapon of the weak” in the face of conventional power was guerrilla warfare and/or terrorism. These tactics are still used, but now, the ultimate “weapon of the weak” is a nuclear weapon.
This is a path trodden by India and Pakistan, pursued but later abandoned by Libya and South Africa, and now joined by North Korea. These are much more serious weapons – a trump card, if you will – and “Third Fatty,” as he has not-so-affectionately been called in China, is demonstrating that he has a mind of his own and no longer wants to be “weak” in a traditional and conventional military sense.
It is unclear what a meeting between Kim and Trump might yield – but China cannot be pleased about even the prospect of direct negotiations between just North Korea and the US or a three-way summit that includes South Korea, both of which would severely limit Chinese influence on peninsular developments.
The problem with client states
This is one reason Chinese President Xi Jinping arranged for Kim Jung Un to visit him in Beijing in late March, conducted live fire drills in the Taiwan Strait last month, and met Kim a second time in Dalian Tuesday – China is trying to re-insert itself into the conversation and remind everyone that it is the dictating power in the region.
While Beijing has slowly become mindful of the monster it has unwittingly unleashed, it still believes that it can walk both these very thin lines – a North Korea that is weak but stable, and disruptive yet not explosive – in part because it must: China’s internal instability cannot withstand much in the way of external shocks, of which the leadership is well aware.
So while this relationship has enabled China to apply economic pressure to North Korea – such as China’s restrictions on coal imports from North Korea – propping up the Kim regime is also as much in the CCP’s own interests and perhaps vital for the CCP’s long-term survival.
China’s own domestic stability requires the maintenance of an impossible situation, and something will have to give eventually – Kim Jung Un himself is seeing to that. This is, unfortunately, an excellent example of how having client states can go wrong.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author.