The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the US maintains in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. The withering of China’s special relationship with North Korea illustrates its dilemma.
Last year, admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Command, said “we have allies, friends and partners where China does not”, while US secretary of defence Ash Carter asserted that Beijing is “erecting a great wall of self-isolation”. The deterioration in Beijing’s ties with North Korea, which is rich in mineral reserves, is sure to increase China’s sense of being alone.
Indeed, when Pyongyang recently accused China of “mean behaviour” and “dancing to America’s tune”, it underscored not only its ruptured relationship with its powerful neighbour but also the fact that Beijing is now left with just one real ally, Pakistan. Quasi-failed Pakistan, although a useful tool for Beijing to contain India, is a dubious ally for China in a larger context.
China’s rift with Pyongyang has followed the considerable weakening of Beijing’s once-tight hold on Myanmar, another country rich in natural resources. Today, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is at its lowest point since the founding of North Korea in 1948. The fatal poisoning of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur represents a major setback for China. Beijing valued Kim Jong Nam—a faded playboy with residences in Macau and Beijing—as a key asset against the dictator, including as his possible replacement.
To be clear, China’s vaunted “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring since Kim Jong Un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. Since then, Kim Jong Un has been trying to show that North Korea is no client-state of China, including by rekindling the “juche” ideology of self-reliance. He has defied Beijing by repeatedly conducting nuclear and missile tests and signalled that he wants North Korea to escape from China’s clutches through better relations with the US—an appeal that has gone unheeded in Washington.
In 2013, Pyongyang executed China’s most valued friend in the North Korean power hierarchy—Jang Song Thaek, a general who was Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage. Jang, a mentor to Kim Jong Nam and Beijing’s main link to Pyongyang, was accused by the regime of abusing his power to favour China, including by underselling resources like coal, land and precious metals.
At the centre of the growing China-North Korea tensions, however, is the bad blood between Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping. When Xi paid a state visit to South Korea in mid-2014, he overturned decades of tradition in which Chinese leaders always visited North Korea first. Xi has yet to travel to Pyongyang, just as Kim Jong Un has refused to visit Beijing. Paying obeisance in Beijing, however, was customary for Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The young ruler’s effort to chart an independent course has sparked a sustained propaganda campaign against him in recent years by China’s state media.
Despite its exasperation, China’s options against the Kim Jong Un regime are limited, given that it does not want the North Korean state to unravel—a scenario that will result in a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the US. The prospect of American troops on its border is a nightmare for China, which explains why it intervened in the Korean War when the US army crossed the 38th parallel and threatened to advance towards the Chinese border.
For centuries, China has seen the Korean Peninsula as its Achilles heel—a region that offers foreign powers an attractive invasion route or a beachhead for attacking China. Today, China has territorial and resource disputes with North Korea that a reunified Korea would inherit. The territorial disputes centre on Lake Chonji and certain islands in the border rivers, the Yalu and Tumen. As if to signal that its present border with North Korea is not final, China has posted a revisionist historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo—founded in northern Korea—was Chinese, not Korean, as believed by historians. Against this background, China sees status quo on the Korean Peninsula as serving its interest. It will likely accept Korean reunification only if it leads to a “Finlandized” Korea making permanent strategic concessions.
China’s strongest action against North Korea to date—the recently imposed suspension of coal imports—can be ascribed to the “Trump effect”. US President Donald Trump’s less predictable line, reflected in his wavering on the one-China policy and his tougher stance on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, has prompted Beijing to take this action to blunt US criticism that it is not doing enough to implement UN sanctions.
But China’s growing tensions with Pyongyang mean that the value of the North Korea card in Beijing’s dealings with the US is likely to erode. For years, the US has outsourced the North Korea issue to Beijing by offering it concessions. Today, far from credibly serving as Washington’s intermediary with North Korea, China is smarting from Pyongyang’s open disdain for it.
Still, China must grapple with the larger question of whether it can be a peer rival to the US without any allies.
Brahma Chellaney is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
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