It is important to remember that the commotion ensuing from Pyongyang’s nuclear test is happening in the midst of an ongoing sovereignty dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of islands in the East China Sea. The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, where they are known as the Diaoyutais (釣魚台), while Japan calls them the Senkakus.
China is also embroiled in another sovereignty dispute with several Southeast Asian countries over territories in the South China Sea. Against this smoldering backdrop, Beijing might be more inclined to strengthen its strategic connection with North Korea, notwithstanding its opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
China is clearly annoyed with Pyongyang’s dangerous behavior and for taking Beijing’s allegiance for granted, but its options seem limited.
The US and allies opposed to North Korea’s nuclear development hope that one day Pyongyang will wear out its welcome through its untrustworthiness and Beijing will expel the nation from its economic and strategic shield.
However, this is unlikely so long as the strategic competition and hostility between the US and China are working against accommodation on the North Korea issue. Sanctions against North Korea remain the only real option, but they have not worked so far and are unlikely to work without Chinese backing.
This will lead North Korea’s neighbors — in particular Japan and South Korea — to further beef up their military defences and even consider a pre-emptive strike. This has the potential of sparking a conflict that would draw in China and the US, a prospect which is alarming.
Chinese leaders must reflect on the situation and be concerned about having an unstable nuclear neighbor operating outside their control. On the Korean Peninsula, it is Pyongyang that seems to drive Chinese policy. Worse still, if it is pressured too much by China to abandon its nuclear weapons program, North Korea might turn its (nuclear) gun on China. Hopefully, Pyongyang is not this suicidal.
However, the North is determined to maintain its nuclear profile as its only leverage and deterrant against what it perceives as a hostile world. Beijing may have to live with its unruly ally, hoping that a resumption of talks in the six-party forum could lead to a breakthrough — this is the path that China has pursued and is likely to continue.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.