With the series of events over the last three weeks in North Korea, from firing of ballistic missiles over Japan to the testing of what looked to be a hydrogen bomb on 3 September, Pyongyang’s direction seems clear enough. Despite immense effort over two decades, from sanctions to increasing isolation and international ostracization, the impoverished country with a population of just 23 million and one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world has, far more effectively and quickly than anyone had predicted, created something close to a viable, projectible, nuclear weapon capability.
This was not the way things were meant to be. A large part of the blame needs to be placed on the leaderships in power in China over this era. Despite having immense leverage over its neighbour, through trade, aid and energy, every time Beijing’s leaders were offered a moment to decisively deal with their truculent, troublesome neighbour, they backed down. China is faced today with the final consequences of this passivity. To the Indians, Russians and Pakistanis, can now be added the North Koreans as nuclear powers bordering China. There cannot be a more unhappy geography for a country to occupy than this.
Despite the complexities of the current situation, we need to be clear about one thing: nothing about a North Korea with a ballistic nuclear weapon capability is good for China. It creates significantly more potential for instability in the region. It impacts dramatically on China’s grand plans to be a dominant regional and global player. It directly poses risks to its relations with neighbouring countries at a time when the People’s Republic has the fulfilment of its great dream of modernity within reach — restoration of its status as a major international power.
North Korea has played brinkmanship, moral blackmail and the most ruthless zero-sum Machiavellian politics with China as much as with any other country. It is a diplomacy utterly without principle, based on having no alternative for the Kim regime than to cling to power no matter what. In their minds, nuclear capacity is the final guarantee that they cannot be touched. This plan has worked out well for them.
The Kims have been ably assisted by a paternalistic mindset in China where elite leaders throughout the last two decades have regarded them as ‘little brothers’; united by a common political system, but too poor, ignorant and isolated to ever cause Beijing problems. Even in the recent past, the Chinese patiently batted away any attempts to influence them to place pressure on their neighbour by stating that North Koreans were stubborn, that pushing them into a corner would be counterproductive, and that more even-tempered methods needed to be used. The outcomes of this are now clear.
Chinese leaders will be too proud to acknowledge they have been gamed in this endless series of provocations and brinkmanship. But they are among the closest to the problem. If, and when, things get out of hand, the Chinese will be among the ones who will suffer the greatest consequences. They also know that they are faced by a wholly unscrupulous neighbour who has a mindset of being a perpetual victim, and who feels that they are owed everything by China and therefore can get away with whatever they want. North Koreans have been a thorn in China’s side for decades. They have now managed to become something akin to an open wound. It is hard to see how this can be easily healed.
China has to now engage with a kind of diplomacy and intervention and in a manner which it has never been happy with before. It is hard to see how its highly conservative current leadership will be able to manage this shift. Figures in the current Politburo like Zhang Dejiang actually studied in Pyongyang in the late 1970s. But they have been consistent in taking a soft stance, and telling everyone to back off and not push the North Koreans. Now they need to be much more defensive and think of their own interests before those of their neighbour.
China still has the leverage to deal with North Korea decisively. The road to Pyongyang, as everyone knows, always ran through Beijing. That hasn’t changed. Never before has China had a more important role to play on such a decisive, urgent, international issue. It has everything to gain from reining its immoral, ungrateful and unsustainable neighbour in, once and for all, and nothing to gain from seeing North Korea march towards even greater truculence and bellicosity. Nor does Beijing have the luxury of a predictable, remote United States this time. Donald Trump is perfectly capable of petulant, disproportionate responses.
China has been fond of talking about win-win outcomes over the last few years. In this case, it has never been clearer. A strong response by China to North Korea now means China wins, and so does the rest of the world. It needs to do this to show it is truly a major power, and not simply one capable of talking big about issues that don’t matter to it, and being silent on something so fundamental to its own destiny and future prosperity.
Professor Kerry Brown, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.
This article was originally published in The Diplomat.