Since North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, and subsequent escalating tensions and recent threats by Pyongyang to conduct a fourth nuclear test, Beijing has been more vocal in supporting sanctions and measures to deter North Korea from pursuing its WMD and ballistic missile programmes.
Moreover, recent reports indicate that China has been preparing for select contingencies, including the possibility of North Korean collapse. While Beijing has denied the reports, discussions with North Korean specialists in China point out that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does indeed have mission templates to conduct three types of operations in North Korea.
But, the key dilemma for Beijing is the question of retaining its historical obligations and commitment to North Korea to ensure its survival.
In this context, China has been consistently ambiguous concerning the “principle for intervention” embedded in the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance that requires China to “render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event North Korea comes under “armed attack by any state”.
The ambiguity is in China’s position to make an authoritative interpretation in making the decision to intervene on behalf of North Korea.
China’s strategic priority
China’s key strategic priority is to prevent a major war on the Korean Peninsula, which also means preventing a North Korean implosion. Such collapse would undermine China’s geostrategic interests by removing traditional strategic buffer provided by North Korea. This would mean that US forces would be deployed on the Korean Peninsula above the 38th parallel.
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Beijing has therefore prevented North Korea’s socio-economic implosion, while simultaneously exerting pressure on Pyongyang to return to the stalled Six Party Talks and resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue through multilateral diplomatic means.
China’s ambiguous stance, however, poses a challenge for the US and its allies in East Asia in trying to ascertain China’s leverage over North Korea, while changing Beijing’s commitment and involvement in defence of North Korea in potential crises.
Since the late 1990s, China has served as North Korea’s chief food supplier and has accounted for nearly 90 percent of its energy imports. By providing critical economic lifeline to North Korea, China’s diplomacy has been perceived as key enabler in defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
China analysts, however, point out that Beijing does not control Pyongyang, and the extent of its influence over North Korea is overestimated. In this view, high-level meetings between Beijing and Pyongyang have stalled since December 2012. Moreover, the 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and close adviser in charge of China’s investment projects in North Korea, has further undermined Sino-North Korean relations.
Notwithstanding these concerns, ascertaining China’s leverage and strategy toward the Korean Peninsula must be also viewed through the lens of its perceptions and responses to the policy of US strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing has viewed Obama’s pivot to Asia strategy as increasingly contentious and in “zero-sum” terms – as a comprehensive strategy by Washington to curtail China’s rise and influence in the region. Beijing is concerned about US strengthening its military alliances in the region, and has periodically criticised US military deployments in East Asia, most recently in the 2013 China’s Defence White Paper.
Consequently, in potential conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, China could use the PLA as a lever to mitigate the freedom of action of US forces in the region. Beijing could potentially disrupt, limit, prevent or intervene in US-ROK military responses in various conflict and unification scenarios in and around the Korean Peninsula.
China’s ambiguous strategy coupled with its increasingly robust military power projection will therefore reshape security conceptions on the Korean Peninsula, and the extent of US-ROK strategic options and responses.
For the US and its ally South Korea, this means not only the need to maintain its traditional collective defence mechanism and robust force posture vis-a-vis North Korea, but at the same time, also addressing security issues that have a strong Chinese imprint.
While Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington share a common interest in ensuring stability and security on the Korean Peninsula, containing North Korea’s nuclear programme, they do not discuss the modalities and country-specific responses to various contingencies and regional crisis scenarios to preserve the status quo.
In order to mitigate security uncertainties, it is imperative to enhance defence diplomacy and dialogue between Beijing, Washington and Seoul that would provide mechanism for defusing potential crises.
After all, the current interplay of strategic uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula cannot stipulate an indefinite status-quo. Whatever scenario, whether unification by force, by peaceful negotiation, by the collapse of North Korea or by nonlinear development such as foreign intervention, it may be characterised by an unexpected turn of events.
Michael Raska is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.