In response to North Korea’s successful test of an inter-continental ballistic missile that could possibly reach Australia, politicians, including Malcolm Turnbull, have been calling China to get tough on the rogue state. But these exhortations will fall on deaf ears.
China’s interests in relation to North Korea are fundamentally different from ours, and no matter how much we cajole or threaten, we cannot genuinely expect China to behave differently in the immediate future.
The basic perspective in the US, Australia, and countries like ours — let’s call us “the West” — is that we want to see North Korea denuclearise.
There is a rising sense of panic that North Korea’s nuclear progress is becoming a genuine threat to us. We want to see reunification of the peninsula under liberal democratic governance. If that entails regime change or regime collapse in North Korea, well, so be it.
For China, the calculations are entirely different.
China and North Korea’s relationship is at one of its lowest points in years. No longer “as close as lips and teeth”, as China used to describe it, it is still more than a standard bilateral relationship, at least technically under the 1962 treaty of friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance.
While the Chinese are deeply dissatisfied with the current North Korean regime and also want a denuclearised North Korea, their priority is maintaining stability. The idea of regime collapse in North Korea, or even change, is anathema to them.
Sharing a border with North Korea, they are deeply concerned about a flood of North Korean refugees into China.
They also are fundamentally opposed to having US troops on their doorstep. They are not interested in a unified Korean peninsula governed by South Korea, a US ally.
Even a relatively pro-China North Korea as it is would be better than an “anti-China” force on their doorstep. What China sees when it looks at North Korea is a buffer between itself and the US. The Chinese persecution complex regarding the US is a powerful and underestimated motivating factor for its approach to the Korean Peninsula.
There is certainly debate within China about the best approach to North Korea, but Chinese policy is based on a different view of Kim Jong-un’s rationality. China sees Mr Kim’s unrelenting determination to develop nuclear capabilities as reflecting his psychological position of persecution, isolation, and existential fear.
They see that Kim Jong-un is signalling to the world that North Korea is a real force to be reckoned with.
The best approach to managing tensions
The current Chinese position is that if they do more to put the North Korean regime under pressure by applying tougher sanctions, or other means, the result will be that Kim Jong-un is squeezed into an even tighter corner.
They consider there is a far greater likelihood of him doing something rash and dangerous under those circumstances.
Their conclusion is that the best approach is managing tensions with North Korea until such a time that someone less volatile than Mr Kim is in the leadership.
There is no doubt that China could do more to put pressure on North Korea. It is estimated that 85-90 per cent of North Korean trade goes through China. China exports oil to North Korea, and imports North Korean coal.
However, given China’s position and interests, it is extremely unlikely that it will do more. While China is by no means happy with the status quo, the alternatives, in their view, are no better.
The West cannot rely on China to get tougher on North Korea. We will need to think of something else.
By Merriden Varrall