What Will China Do if the U.S. Attacks North Korea?

China’s immediate priorities would be evacuating its citizens from affected areas, defending its border, preventing an inflow of refugees, and safeguarding North Korea’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons stockpiles.

Locating and securing weapons of mass destruction would likely be a shared objective for China and all other governments involved, and could offer scope for cooperation, eventually under U.N. auspices. China has consistently maintained that it wants denuclearization for the entire peninsula and it would likely seek to ensure that Seoul did not end up with control of nuclear weapons. China’s domestic security apparatus also would have concerns about smuggling that could lead to proliferation.

A massive inflow of refugees (estimated numbers vary from hundreds of thousands to millions) would challenge the capacity of Jilin and Liaoning provinces to provide humanitarian assistance. China would probably prefer to stop internally displaced North Koreans at the border and set up relief camps inside North Korea or as close to it as possible to avoid intermingling with the local population in those provinces, which include many ethnic Koreans. Maintaining domestic order and stability would be crucial, and failure could have political implications for the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

Beyond the immediate crisis response, Beijing’s strategic stance would depend heavily on how the U.S. engaged with it, and the quality and credibility of any assurances provided. There would be the possibility of trade-offs, as Seong-Hyon Lee describes, but the lack of trust between Beijing and Washington could make reaching agreements on many elements extremely difficult.

The argument that North Korea provides a strategic buffer is less common among Chinese analysts than it used to be, but conflict on the peninsula could reopen that debate. If the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) assessed that there was a risk of having U.S. forces directly across the Yalu River, there could be a strong temptation to intervene.

Earlier this month, Chinese international relations scholar Jia Qingguo broke precedent and wrote publicly about the need for China-U.S. talks on contingency plans. Other Chinese analysts have quietly advocated the same for some time, but until recently the government has resisted because of the political signal it would send to Pyongyang. In August, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford visited Beijing and Liaoning province and discussed contingencies with P.L.A. counterparts including the chief of China’s Joint Staff Department, General Fang Fenghui. That was a significant step forward in military communication even in peaceful circumstances; in the event of conflict, it would be crucial to keep channels open to avoid miscalculation and a wider war.

China is treaty-bound to assist North Korea in the event of an attack, but might argue that Pyongyang’s recent actions in defiance of multiple Security Council resolutions and Beijing’s own exhortations have invalidated that agreement, and it might limit its response to humanitarian assistance. As Bonnie Glaser notes, national interest would take precedence. China has demonstrated before that it does not feel entirely bound by international law when its core interests are at stake.

During the Korean War, the People’s Republic of China didn’t have a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Now it holds a veto and would likely seek to use its position to manage the situation and ensure it has a strong voice in shaping the outcome. It could likely count on Russia’s support.

Over the longer term, China would seek to improve its influence on the peninsula and strategic position in Northeast Asia. At the very least, it would not want to cede a strategic advantage to the United States. China would also try to demonstrate that it is a responsible major power by supporting peacekeeping, relief, and reconstruction.

The most hopeful course would be for China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and Russia to cooperate in managing the crisis, perhaps under U.N. auspices, and through that experience build further trust that could serve as the foundation of a new, more balanced, and stable security architecture for Northeast Asia. As difficult as that would be to achieve, the sheer horror of worst-case scenarios should motivate the countries involved to do everything they can to prevent conflict, and in the unlikely event that it happens, to limit its scope, secure weapons of mass destruction, protect civilians, and restore stability as quickly as possible.

Michael Kovrig, Senior Adviser, North East Asia.

Originally published in ChinaFile

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