Less than two years after its founding on Sept. 9, 1948, North Korea invaded South Korea, starting a war in which tens of thousands of China’s soldiers died fighting on the side of its communist neighbor. In the decades since the 1953 armistice, China has relied on the country as a buffer zone between itself and US military forces in South Korea, which until the early 1990s were armed with nuclear weapons.
Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong used a proverb to describe North Korea’s vital importance to his country’s security—“If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.”
Now, with its “frenemy” ever more unfriendly, China is in a quandary.
As the North’s weapons tests have become more frequent, culminating in its sixth and most powerful nuclear test Sept. 3, the US has repeatedly said China has to do more to convince its leader Kim Jong-un to back off. China, meanwhile, has its own ideas about the right way to resolve matters in the Korean Peninsula—and those calculations aren’t aligned with the interests of the other countries most deeply involved in the crisis: South Korea, the United States, and Japan.
It’s not that China isn’t alarmed by the latest actions of its nuclear-armed neighbor. An editorial last weekend in the state-run Global Times newspaper warned that a North Korea-China conflict would “transcend any conflict between the US and North Korea.” Just as alarming for China is the possibility of a collapse in North Korea that results in a flow of refugees into northeastern China, or a reunification of the two Koreas under a government friendly to the United States.
“China does not want to see a unified Korean Peninsula with US troops there. It prefers the status quo, which means divided rule. That serves China’s geostrategic interests,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “Of course, the background that motivates China to think so is Sino-US strategic mistrust.”
So what does China want to see?
China has been arguing that the US and South Korea should suspend their joint military exercises, held annually since the 1970s, in exchange for the North stopping its missile launches and nuclear tests. The proposal—called “dual suspension” or “suspension for suspension” by China and sometimes referred to by analysts as “freeze for freeze”—was introduced by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in March, and prominently put forward last month after the UN passed its latest sanctions on Pyongyang. China also wants to see the removal of the THAAD anti-missile system recently deployed in South Korea. China’s stance, backed by Russia, is a no-go for the US.
“We firmly reject any false equivalency between North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile programs, which are enormously destabilizing and have been repeatedly condemned by the UN Security Council, and our long-standing joint activities with our allies, which are transparent and defensive in nature,” said US ambassador Robert Wood in August.
On Sept. 4, the South Korean military conducted drills in response to the North’s latest nuclear test, and said that more exercises are being prepared with the nearly 30,000 US forces in the country.
The US view is that “whatever North Korea does is illegitimate, so it can’t be traded away for something America does that is legitimate,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review, told Quartz.
American officials have had a quarter-century to mull over the results of making concessions aimed at securing cooperation on nonproliferation. In 1991, the US announced it would remove its last nuclear weapons from the South. While that was part of an ongoing drawdown, the removal was also a condition the North had insisted was vital for allowing inspections of its nuclear sites. The US and South Korea had feared the country was perhaps five years away from the bomb.
The world got stop-and-go inspections starting in 1992 of such a limited nature it was impossible for inspectors to do their jobs—and they were thrown out in 2003. Three years later, Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
China regards its “suspension-for-suspension” approach as the first step to initiating a return to the six-party talks, which it says is the only way to make progress on a “dual track”—achieving denuclearization and setting up a peace-maintaining mechanism.
In August, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said that the US would like to have a dialogue with the North about the future, on the condition that it gives up its nuclear ambitions. That offer was soon overshadowed by more hawkish comments from Washington, as more weapons tests followed.
While the Trump administration hasn’t made clear all of the conditions under which talks could occur, they’re unlikely to take place unless Pyongyang ceases testing for an extended period. Instead, the US is likely to keep pursuing more severe sanctions at the UN, such as stopping the supply of crude oil.
China has signaled it is willing to sign on to more UN measures—although it’s unclear if that extends to an oil embargo. At some point, though, Beijing is going to be unwilling to impose anything further.
“Sanction and military pressure alone will never be the final way out,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said last month.
More testing could lead to disarray in the international response to North Korea instead of any further unity—especially given the Trump administration’s threats to take action against countries that trade with North Korea if the UN sanctions process stalls.
“I wonder if this issue with North Korea is not on the verge of turning into a larger dispute between the US and China,” said Pollack. “We’re seeing the North Korea tail wagging the US-Chinese relations dog.”
US defense secretary James Mattis has talked of the possibility of a “massive military response” to threats to itself or allies in the wake of the latest nuclear test. Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said at a Security Council emergency meeting Sept. 4 that Kim was “begging for war.”
Armed conflict is the red line China says it doesn’t want anyone to cross.
“We firmly oppose any trouble-making or trouble-provoking actions at the doorstep of China [and will] definitely allow no war or chaos on the peninsula,” said Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang during a monthly briefing last week. Speaking at a Security Council meeting after the nuclear test, China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi echoed that statement.
So if the US were to wage a war against North Korea, will China also get involved militarily?
When asked about that at a regular press briefing Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he’s not going to answer a “hypothetical question.”
The US isn’t keen on the military option either. The toll likely would be horrific for the South. After a 45-minute phone call with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday (Sept. 6), president Donald Trump said military action is not his “first choice” on North Korea. “But we will see what happens,” he repeated several times.