China’s "lips and teeth" relationship with North Korea (as Mao called it) is currently going through its most trying and difficult period ever. The vehemently hostile rhetoric out of North Korea has quickly made it China’s most embarrassing ally in the eyes of the world.
On Sunday, China’s new president, Xi-Jinping, stated “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” The unusually harsh tone came a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told UN Secretary General that China “does not allow any trouble making on China’s doorstep.”
After the North’s nuclear test in February, China was quick to sign the proposed UN sanctions against North Korea.
China has been North Korea’s solitary ally in a world where the North has faced continuous isolation and frequent sanctions. North Korea predominantly relies on China for food supplies at subsidized rates as well as in the form of aid which are extremely important considering its inability to feed its own people as manifested in the ‘94-’98 famine that killed between 0.2 and 3.5 million people. It also mainly relies on China for its energy supplies, its fertilizer supplies as well as its foreign currency needs, all of which are crucial for its very survival. Hence, China has substantial leverage over the North and can produce decisive results if it chooses to engage in certain arm-twisting measures.
Xi-Jinping does not have the cozy relationship that existed between his predecessors and their North Korean counterparts. Kim Jong-un has not visited China even once since he came to power following his father’s death. In addition, China has certain very practical reasons to rethink its alliance with the North and revert to efforts aimed at significantly toning down Kim Jong-un’s dangerously adventurous rhetoric.
Development of nuclear weapons by the North and a subsequent failure of the global community to rectify the situation will prompt China’s neighbors especially South Korea and Japan to engage in massive arms build-up as well. This will undoubtedly increase the chances of conflict along China’s borders. Furthermore, a U.S. war with the North if the current issue is not resolved will result in a further build-up of U.S. army in South Korea and a subsequent presence of U.S. troops (should a ground invasion occur as well) in North Korea right along the Chinese border. China will also most certainly be faced with a severe refugee problem should war break out. Already 100,000 illegal North Korean immigrants live in China and scores attempt to cross the border into China on a weekly basis. Those caught, as per North Korean-Chinese agreements, are returned to the North and usually face severe repercussions.
The situation also presents China with a rare opportunity where its immediate interests are in line with those of the U.S. Both countries do not want war to breakout in the region and can hence act jointly to subdue the situation. While it is true that China might not want a regime change in the North (something the U.S. would gladly accept) but in the short-run it is vital to Chinese as well as U.S. interests to prevent the current quagmire from escalating into a full-on militarized conflict.
Overall, examined in a wider context, the North Korean problem presents the "rising" China with a golden opportunity (arguably its first of the kind) to be a decisive party in deescalating and possibly even solving an issue that has quickly become the global center of attention. In doing so, China will gain greater headway into fulfilling its aims of a peaceful rise while simultaneously gaining the respect and recognition of an upcoming superpower capable of handling international political crises as well. Hence, for a whole host of reasons, China stands to gain immensely by taking a more proactive and decisive role (for which it has the means and the abilities) in solving the North Korean crisis.