The chorus of condemnation over North Korea’s nuclear test carried calls for strong action from China — but Beijing continues to back its reclusive neighbor.
Many in Beijing see American steps to neutralize the North Korea nuclear issue as a “cover” for pushing ahead with another objective: containing China. The planned deployment of an American missile-defense shield — THAAD to South Korea has served to fan those fears.
Academics and the Chinese general public appear split over what comes next, largely because there are two competing views when it comes to the risks. “One view is that destabilization and regime collapse in North Korea and chaos along the border with China is the main danger to China’s security, the other view is that the escalating nuclear program of North Korea and the prospect of nuclear war is an even bigger danger to China,” Zhang Liangui, a regional expert at China’s Central Party School, explained.
It doesn’t help matters that Beijing views U.S. and South Korean actions — like joint military exercises — as exacerbating the issue by ramping up North Korea’s fears of attack. Meanwhile the US is raising the stakes. Two American B-1B bombers flew over the Korean peninsula this week in a show of force intended to demonstrate U.S. resolve against North Korean aggression.
Many in China view the North Korea issue as a dispute exclusively between Pyongyang and the U.S., according to Zhang. “For China to exert too much pressure on North Korea is tantamount to helping the U.S.,” Zhang explained. “But after the recent fifth nuke test, this point of view is losing ground.”
“Washington and Seoul take the view that the North’s provocations require more military exercises, whereas Beijng is of the view that it’s the military exercises that are encouraging [North Korea] to accelerate its nuclear program,” explained Timothy Stafford, a research fellow at PacificForum-CSIS.
That was reflected in a recent editorial in China’s official People’s Daily newspaper, which called the U.S. a troublemaker with no right to lecture about taking responsibility for keeping North Korea in check. The United States is doing less and less for the public good in international affairs, “but its vigor for trouble-making has not diminished an iota,” the newspaper said in the commentary.