Asia’s odd couple China and North Korea

In the U.N. negotiations over sanctions — this time as before — the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.

The Chinese worry that coming down hard on Pyongyang, by cutting off their vital oil or food exports, could trigger a collapse of the North Korean government or other political instability on the peninsula. Beijing’s nightmares include a loose nukes problem and a humanitarian disaster.

Beijing also has fears about the effects of a North Korean collapse on the strategic balance in East Asia. If North Korea collapsed and the two Koreas unified, China might find astride its border a unified, U.S.-aligned Korea hosting American troops. Chinese analysts also commonly argue that North Korea serves as an important distraction for the U.S. military, which might otherwise train its focus on defending Taiwan.

Thus, despite the nuisance that North Korea regularly makes of itself, for all these reasons, it would be sorely missed by Beijing. But the days of “lips and teeth” (Mao Zedong’s’s famous statement about the closeness of Sino-North Korean relations) are clearly over. Chinese scholars and analysts increasingly express open frustration with Pyongyang’s behavior. In a meeting of an advisory group to the Chinese government — the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — participants openly debated the question: whether to “keep or dump” North Korea?

China’s remarkable four decades of economic reform and growth have catapulted it to wealth and power — China is a global power, with global interests. China has a deep stake in maintaining stability in order to sustain its pathway to prosperity. China’s relationship with the United States can be tense [but] the two countries are vital trade partners that share a vast array of ties and often overlapping interests. Beijing also values its relationship with South Korea.

Because the specter of North Korea’s collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two countries’ increasingly divergent interests suggest that China’s dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.

[Excerpts of article by Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College]

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