China has gone around Asia, particularly, Southeast Asia telling countries to behave because they are smaller than China. Beijing however, is strangely more diffident when it comes to Pyongyang’s consistently cocking a snook at it and also complicating China’s regional security environment at the same time. As opposed as they are to the DPRK’s nuclear status, the Chinese also do not seek a US-led regime change through military meansand to see either North Korean refugees or American troops on its borders.
Chinese Views on North Korea’s Nuclear Programme
Chinese scholars also view the DPRK as feeling genuinely threatened by the US and that its development of nuclear weapons is for regime survival. The huge US-ROK joint military exercises in March-April 2016 according to the Chinese caused major worry in Pyongyang, which sees such exercises as disguising potential military invasion.
While the DPRK is involved in a step-by-step approach to building up its nuclear deterrence first looking at coverage against South Korea, followed by Japan, being able to reach Guam and finally continental United States, Chinese scholars also note that the US and South Korea have been developing the so-called ‘decapitation’ capabilities with ROK ballistic missiles targeting specific high-value North Korean buildings and structures while the US focuses on ‘high-value targets’, possibly specific individuals in the North Korean regime. There is also increasing incitement to North Korean diplomats to defect with the latest instance being of the North Korean deputy ambassador in London defecting to South Korea.
Where US president Barack Obama made measured and calculated moves in upping the ante against the North Koreans with the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense in South Korea, president-elect Donald Trump has created greater uncertainty from the Chinese point of view saying different things at different times. Early in the election campaign Trump stated that he would ‘get China to make that guy [North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un] disappear in one form or another very quickly’ while post-elections he declared himself willing to speak with Kim and that he would stop a nuclear North Korea and reconstruct the alliance partnership with South Korea.
It is perhaps due to American pressure and its self-interest in preventing the situation from getting out of hand – there have been calls by South Korean politicians to go nuclear – that Beijing also declares itself willing to impose more comprehensive and stricter sanctions to prevent DPRK developing its nuclear capabilities, even though there is another line of thinking that suggests that it has been difficult getting Chinese agreement in this regard  Chinese officials and scholars say their country is fully willing to implement sanctions on DPRK’s nuclear programme or more broadly on DPRK’s military programme but also consistent in stating to the rest of the world that their country has little influence over Pyongyang’s actions.
China-North Korea Bilateral Dynamics
The reality, however, is a little more complex than this. Officially, it would appear that China and North Korea only have ‘normal relations’. Xi Jinping himself has so far not met the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-un, while having met several times the South Korean president Park Geun-hye and even invited her for the military parade in Beijing marking the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II.
On the other hand, on the ground, there is actually little evidence of China actually having turned tough on economic sanctions against North Korea and bilateral trade is actually increasing. Chinese scholars argue that their country has been hesitant to completely cut off North Korea, allowing food and fuel supplies to pass through in order to prevent suffering for the North Korean people and to prevent information and communication channels with the regime from being undermined especially during periods of high tensions.
As one Chinese analyst has put it, ‘For China, North Korea is a necessary evil’. The two ruling political parties in China and North Korea remain in touch and at least one member from the CPC’s current Politburo Standing Committee, Liu Yunshan, has visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-un. One Russian analyst has suggested that ‘the Chinese leaders made up their minds, and came to the conclusion that an erratic and nuclear, but domestically stable North Korea is still a lesser evil than a collapsing North Korea’. The implication is that the DPRK’s nuclear tests in the last year have had little impact on Beijing’s overall approach to Pyongyang.
While it might be argued that China is, in a sense, held hostage by North Korea, Beijing also genuinely believes economic engagement is necessary to push the DPRK towards economic liberalization and then social and political change. It is important for the Communist Party of China from a political point of view to ensure that the North Korean communist regime survives and in a manner that is sustainable and beneficial for its own people. Important because, there are few communist regimes left in the world and as long as they exist and succeed there is a case for China too, to continue its current political system and to resist pressure for political reforms.
To this end, China itself could be a model for the North Koreans to learn from. A successful reform and opening up of the North Korean regime would not only undercut Western attempts to overthrow the Kim regime, it would also strengthen China’s own development model as an exemplar that can be sold also to other kinds of regimes especially in the developing Third World. It is for this reason, too, that China both supports the DPRK regime against the international community on the one hand and expresses its exasperation with Pyongyang on the other.
North Korea and China’s International Behaviour
It is this duality that is behind China’s willingness to ignore sanctions in order to prevent ordinary people in the DPRK from suffering and for Chinese scholars suggesting that there is need to offer Pyongyang positive inducements of the sort that resulted in the nuclear deal with Iran. There is certainly no altruism here for the reasons indicated above but in so far as China’s ignoring sanctions genuinely benefits ordinary North Koreans, there might still be a case made for it.
However, it is when Chinese analysts also point out that it is ultimately difficult to distinguish between military and civilian use items that the other aspect of China’s involvement with North Korea comes through. The increasing rivalry with the US is a line that runs through current Chinese foreign policy. In other words, Beijing’s effort is to undermine Western (read American) or international attempts to coerce or to play a significant role vis-à-vis North Korea, which it sees in its sphere of influence and ultimately one, which poses a greater threat not to itself but to China’s adversaries.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob. 2017. ‘China’s Relations with North Korea: Not an Ally but a Card’, Science, Technology and Security forum, Manipal Advanced Research Group, Manipal University, 20 January.