By Steve Tsang

The official Chinese reaction to North Korea’s third nuclear test is stern but lacks meaningful bite. Beijing proclaims itself “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test, and has called for the resumption of international talks. Chinese leaders seemingly fail to recognize that this event is a game-changer, and that they no longer need to succumb to the blackmail tactics of their unruly neighbor.

In carrying out the test, the North Koreans have once again compromised China’s national interests, as the international community is fixated on Beijing’s support for Pyongyang. As an emerging superpower seeking to reassure the rest of the world of its peaceful rise, China is expected to play a constructive role.

The reality that the North Korean regime can only sustain itself with Chinese backing is well-known. The North depends on Beijing for oil, food aid and a degree of cover at international institutions such as the United Nations. Thus, Beijing can’t avoid international expectations that it will play a bigger role in resolving the ever-growing North Korean problem.

This despite the fact that Beijing’s sway in Pyongyang still doesn’t make it omnipotent. The North Korean leader can afford to ignore Chinese national interests and blackmail China because he thinks China cannot, on balance, afford to let North Korea implode or be taken over by South Korea backed by the USA.

With the North Korean third nuclear test coming so quickly after its rocket launch in December, the United Nations has good reason to ask China, a permanent Security Council member, to take the lead. It is simply not enough for China, as its official statement goes, to call for the reinstatement of the six-party peace talks between both Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia. This framework has repeatedly been discredited by North Korea’s abuse of agreements reached in the past.

China must warn North Korea that it will not be pressured into offering it support even when Chinese national interests have been damaged. Indeed, China should make it clear that, much as it prefers North Korea to survive and prosper, it can afford to allow North Korea to implode.

Since the nuclear test there are already Chinese scholars and netizens who question the wisdom of Chinese support for North Korea. They already see that sustaining this erratic regime that readily disregards Chinese national interests is more of a liability than an asset for China. I would go further.

The conventional wisdom that a collapse of the North Korean state will be disastrous for China is misconceived. Any crisis sparked by North Korean refugees fleeing across its northern border into China would be short-term and international assistance would be readily available.

A South Korea-led unification of the peninsula should hold no fears for China. China already enjoys a smoother relationship with the South than with the North. A Korean unification would take two decades, during which Japan and the U.S. would need to inject a huge amount of aid. Rebuilding and reincorporating North Korea would preoccupy Korea and Japan for a generation. This hardly counts against Chinese interests as it continues its own advance towards the status of world’s largest economy.

If this process unfolds, the U.S. motivation for keeping its own military forces in South Korea dissipates. A phased reduction of the American presence would surely follow. If the U.S. wishes to maintain bases in Korea in the longer term, it will have to secure permission from a proud and newly united Korean nation—hardly a foregone conclusion.

A united Korea that inherits the nuclear weapons of the North would also pose challenges to U.S.-Korea relations. The U.S. will remain committed to de-nuclearizing the peninsula, while the Korean government would be tempted to retain its nuclear capabilities. This strain in their relationship should work to China’s advantage as it reduces the likelihood of U.S. troops remaining in Korea.

China must also consider the weighty implications of North Korea’s actions on its own fractious relations with Japan. The issue at the top of the foreign policy agenda of China’s new leader Xi Jinping is to force the Japanese government to acknowledge, if not accept, that a territorial dispute exists over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. This has already resulted in Chinese a naval ship using its fire-control radars to lock onto a Japanese destroyer and a Japanese naval helicopter.

In these incidents, the single most powerful reason for Japanese restraint is its own rules of military engagement. Under current law, Japanese security forces are forbidden from returning fire unless clearly fired upon, meaning there is little its Maritime Defense Force vessels can do when targeted by Chinese naval radar.

However, if these rules of engagement are revised to allow them to destroy a North Korean missile before it reaches Japanese airspace, it will have wider implications on how it interprets the boundaries of self-defense in its relations with others. This increases the risk of conflict between Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces.

If the Chinese leadership can think beyond its usual default option of abstract condemnation followed by a call for dialogue, it can apply real pressure on North Korea in full view of the international community. North Korea’s last ally should give it one last chance, and its ultimatum must be a credible one.

Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. This post first appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 15 February (link).

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