South Korean officials insist that China now agrees that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious security threat to the region. If that interpretation is accurate, it is a strong indicator that Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing very thin. But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, the United States and its East Asian allies have a long-standing tendency to overestimate China’s willingness, even its ability, to restrain Pyongyang without incurring excessive risks to its own national interests.
Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea plans to conduct yet another nuclear test. China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step. According to Reuters, Beijing has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime. But China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile. Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts. Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted such tests. If that weren’t enough, North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island. Although Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, it did not prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct.
Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks. Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel. Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would obliterate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia. Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome.