China’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated a sophisticated capacity to adeptly wade through awkward diplomatic situations. But since North Korea’s failed missile test this week, China faces a unique dilemma. Despite his seemingly erratic behavior, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has made a cold calculation familiar to enemies of the United States. If his scientists can manufacture a nuclear missile that can hit the continental United States, or at least if he can give the impression that they have done so, then he has bought himself the insurance he needs against any American attack.
As long as he appears irrational enough to be willing to sacrifice millions of his compatriots, then his threat of a reprisal if the North is attacked is credible. But he is taking a grave risk on the way to that point: that the United States and maybe its allies will launch a preemptive attack before North Korea can develop a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile that can hit the US.
For the North Koreans, negotiating a wind down of the country’s nuclear program is not an option. That’s because they look at two examples as instructive. The first is Muammar Ghaddafi’s Libya. Ghaddafi negotiated away his clandestine nuclear program in 2003, only to be swept away by Western forces in 2011. The second is Iran today, as President Trump now insists that the multilateral nuclear deal concluded by President Obama and five other nations with Iran was a bad one and that Iran is not keeping up to the “spirit” of the UN agreement. Kim Jong-un has concluded that the West is not to be trusted.
China’s leaders dislike the idea of an aggressive and nuclearized North Korea about as much as the Americans do. Its state media in the last 12 months has taken the unprecedented step of publicly criticizing Kim Jong-un’s government’s behavior. And the North Koreans have reciprocated. Diplomatic visits between the two countries, a historically good indicator of the state of their relations, have ground to a crawl.
But the Chinese are just as concerned about North Korea completely falling apart. They don’t like the South importing American anti-missile systems, because those could also be used against China. They don’t want millions of refugees flooding across their border if tensions get worse or the country breaks down. They don’t want a war breaking out next door. And they certainly don’t want a united Korea, allied to the US, abutting China.
There are three contending views in China about what to do about the current situation. The first is the traditional view: that the Chinese should stand by North Korea, and hope that its aggression remains firmly focused on the US, Japan and South Korea and doesn’t turn towards China at some point. The second is that China should severe ties with North Korea because it is having such a debilitating effect on US-China relations. In effect, they argue, North Korean bellicosity is providing the US with an excuse to deploy closer to China. The third, more whispered than boldly stated, is to “eliminate’ North Korea. The details are fuzzy, but the implication is that the Chinese could simply invade the North themselves.
The third is, of course, the least likely. And China’s prudent leadership would prefer to buy time rather than act hastily.
President Trump’s efforts to work with China’s leaders, by offering them a new trade deal, in exchange for greater cooperation in dealing with the North Koreans, may not be a bad one. But it overstates China’s influence. Sure, China can stop trading with and feeding the North Koreans. But will that make Kim Jong-un more pliant or more resilient? He hasn’t demonstrated too much compassion towards his compatriots. And there is no opposition in North Korea that the Chinese can back against him, even if they wanted. What the Chinese really want is stability.
The clock is ticking. And China’s preference for awaiting developments, in the hope that the status quo that has lasted decades will hold, will be sorely tested. If Trump’s escalation backs down, then the Chinese may be able to muddle through the current situation. And many Americans may be unaware that we have been here before: The US almost went to war during the Clinton administration in 1994. But the North had no nuclear weapons then to embolden them and threaten neighbors across the region. And once that first shot is fired, the only guarantee is that it won’t be the last.
Simon Reich is a professor of global affairs and former director of the the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.