With the North Korean nuclear test, China emerges from the lunar New Year once again having to walk a tightrope on an issue it would rather ignore.
Catch-22: The View From China
China has made a lot more PR capital out of the North Korean situation than many in the West realise- in Asian media, China casts itself as the voice of reason and moderation standing between the two sides, as odd as that may sound to many Western readers. The reason China takes this tack is that it feels it has no choice. On a basic level, North Korea represents a catch-22 for China.
One can only imagine the intense embarrassment China must feel at the actions of its unstable “Communist” ally- or rather, we don’t have to imagine. Chinese officials are fairly open about their disdain for the DPRK, and to Chinese scholars, it is a like a country stuck in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”. China’s approach to North Korea in recent years has been to try to get them to see the light of reform and opening- a number of North Korean dignitaries have pointedly been taken on tours of modern Shanghai and other symbols of China’s economic progress, and Chinese scholars and policy makers emphasize that reform is the only path to North Korea’s national survival.
But the pressure stops at lectures. China could easily starve, or freeze, North Korea in short order, as its primary source of food and fuel. China could shut down trade with North Korea and never notice the difference. So why doesn’t it tighten the screws a little?
The one scenario China wants to avoid at all costs is the collapse of North Korea. That means refugees coming across the border, years of involvement, and worse, potentially sharing a land border with the democratic, Western-aligned Republic of Korea. We know that the latter would suffer an economic setback greater than that suffered by the Federal Republic of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall- at least people in the DDR were relatively educated and had few problems with modern technology. The DPRK’s citizens are unlikely ever to have seen a cellphone or computer. But still, the PRC approaches such a scenario with deep reservations, and has already stated that it would regard the continued presence of the US military on the Korean Peninsula in such circumstances as provocative and unjustifiable.
Robert Kaplan argued a few years back that China would be the big winner from a unified Korea, if only because issues with the American troop presence and abiding enmity with Japan would drive Korea toward its larger neighbour. David Shambaugh and Anne Wu explain that the view from China is a little different.
On the other hand, China wants to avoid a continuation of the Korean War for exactly the same reasons- therein lies the catch-22. Moreover, China has other crucial interests riding on North Korea not provoking a nuclear arms race. If either Japan or South Korea were to decide to initiate a nuclear weapons program, the other would soon follow, in accordance with their lingering World War II-era bilateral neurosis. And a nuclear armed Japan would have a decidedly poisonous effect on China.
What Can China Do?
So, for the moment, it appears that the only response China is incline or capable of providing is a stern lecture, and maybe a brief interruption of supplies. And they may be right. Cutting the North off would rapidly starve the population. Faced with imminent collapse, the leadership might well do something ill-advised enough to start a war. We are not, after all, dealing with a rational actor.
From the perspective of North Korea’s reactionary regime, the fact is the nuclear test makes sense only insofar as any move to heighten international tensions helps to divert their own people’s attention from hunger and poverty. In allowing the test, the leadership appeases the military. But on another level, we know that North Korea has a limited supply of fissile materials which is reduced with each bomb test. We know that North Korea is not getting any more concessions from South Korea or the United States through nuclear blackmail. We know that North Korea has had problems in the past containing radiation from these tests. It is all in all rather bemusing to watch, like a child demanding candy and threatening to hit himself if he doesn’t get it.
Still, the news isn’t all black. Ballistic missile defence in the area is now fairly substantial, and any contact with, well, reality, is a deep existential threat to the Pyongyang regime. It’s been joked that the best response to an invasion from the North would be to have McDonald’s cater it. But the Chinese do have a point- any collapse is going to be a huge headache for everyone involved, and I don’t think anyone’s going to bet money on a smooth transition.