China’s latest diplomatic crisis began with an earthquake in a region not known for seismic activity [caused by North Korea’s nuclear test.]. And China analysts don’t expect Beijing to do much. Concerned about the implications of a North Korean collapse, China shows little appetite for confrontation.
“The reason North Korea dared to conduct this nuclear test is because it knew the Chinese are very much handcuffed,” said Tong Zhao, an associate at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
China is the only lifeline for leader Kim Jong Un. The bigger neighbor accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade, much of it along the Yalu River, which serves as a border between the two countries.
Leaders worry that economic upheaval in the totalitarian nation could flood northeastern China with millions of refugees, Zhao said. But they fear much more the loss of a buffer between China and U.S.-backed South Korea, with its nearly 30,000 American troops.
China already is incensed at a July agreement between Seoul and the U.S. to deploy a missile defense system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, to protect the South from any Pyongyang attacks. Beijing sees the equipment as a threat to its own national security.
The tensions threaten efforts at any unified strategy toward North Korea. And they likely handed the unpredictable, 32-year-old Kim a greater opportunity to flout international sanctions. Many doubt China will approve stronger sanctions.
“For China, North Korea is a necessary evil,” said Zhang Baohui, the director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “China has to maintain the survival of the North Korean regime. That’s its fundamental quagmire.”
“From China’s point of view, North Korea’s real weapon of destruction is chaos,” said Euan Graham, former charge d’affairs at the British embassy in Pyongyang and current international security program director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia. “The fear of chaos runs so deep in the Chinese psyche that it’s this overriding fear [that dominates] rather than one of a freelancing and uncontrollable ally.”
So far, Beijing has agreed only to push for multi-country talks that stalled seven years ago.
Beijing now kicks the ball to the U.S. and South Korea. States Zhang, the Hong Kong professor, “China has accepted the reality of a nuclear North Korea.”