North Korea’s fifth nuclear test earlier this month elicited a predictable response from China: condemnation from its state media and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As with Pyongyang’s previous tests, it is likely that Beijing will support sanctions against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime by the UN Security Council.
The logic and history of Chinese policy on North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons demonstrates that not much else should be expected from China.
Since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006, which torpedoed the now-defunct China-sponsored six-party talks, Beijing has not been able to substantially delay North Korea in making progress on its apparent ultimate aim, which is to become a nuclear power.
The recent test only confirms this point.
It is instructive to understand the sources of China’s inertia on North Korea, which opens the door for Pyongyang to continue making progress on its nuclear weapons program. Simply put, China confronts a menu of poor options.
Chinese decisionmakers genuinely do not want a nuclear-armed North Korea on their doorstep. Such a development would very possibly serve as a catalyst for the full-blown integration of South Korea, Japan, and possibly Taiwan, into a US regional missile-defense system.
Also, while unlikely at the present, the door would then be opened to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Seoul, Tokyo and other states.
However, China also does not want a non-nuclear-armed North Korea, which would be economically weak and insecure, facing the combined might of Japan, South Korea and the US.
The collapse of the North Korean state would then only be a matter of time. Once the dust cleared, China would face an ominous strategic problem: the evisceration of a buffer zone that separates US ally South Korea from China.
The evidence suggests that Beijing has reluctantly settled for the lesser evil of a nuclear-armed North Korea, but this development will very likely bring with it multiple intractable problems, both for China and the region.
Consider the following quite realistic scenario: A nuclear-armed North Korea will still be desperately poor, and is likely to view its nuclear weapons and missile programs as revenue generators. Therefore, there will be legitimate concerns about Pyongyang functioning as a rogue agent of nuclear weapons proliferation.
The US and regional states would be expected to take precautionary measures. These would range from the interdiction of North Korean ships carrying suspected nuclear weapons and missile technology to the acquisition of sophisticated missile defense technology to deter North Korean attacks.
Such developments would have deleterious effects on Chinese interests.
On one hand, a serious US-led interdiction policy would mean repeated regional crises on China’s periphery.
On the other hand, the spread of missile defense technology to regional states will undermine, in varying and unpredictable ways, China’s nuclear and conventional deterrent capabilities.
Either way, it is an illusion to believe that Chinese national security interests will not be seriously undermined.
Nicholas Khoo is a senior lecturer and director of the international studies master’s program at the Department of Politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
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