Right now, the Chinese capital Beijing is hosting a high-profile visitor: the US Secretary of State. John Kerry arrived there to talk about the South China Sea crisis, as well as measures to be taken against North Korea after its recent nuclear test, the fourth since 2006.
North Korea’s defiant determination to advance its nuclear programme has annoyed Washington. Therefore, Kerry is in Beijing to persuade China to join a tougher international sanctions regime. However, there is little reason to expect his mission to be successful. Until recently, China was indeed prepared to take a tougher stance on matters North Korean, but things have changed.
I have maintained contact with Chinese scholars and policy specialists for many years. During my visit to China after the nuclear test, I could not help but spot a dramatic U-turn in their attitude towards North Korea.
Since 2012, the Chinese foreign policymaking community had become increasingly hostile towards North Korea because of its nuclear tests and general misbehaviour. But of late, such hostility has markedly weakened.
An unpopular place
Let us be frank: On the emotional level, North Korea remains a tremendously unpopular place among both the Chinese elite and public at large. The country’s political system is seen as a bad joke, while its exaggerated sense of self-importance and ethno-nationalism is viewed as worrisome and irritating.
That said, such emotional matters usually have little bearing on relations between the two countries. Ultimately, state interests – and security most of all – takes precedence. In this regard, it seems that Chinese state interests demand a softer approach to North Korea’s international misbehaviour.
Chinese state interests indeed demand a softer approach to North Korea's international misbehaviour.
China is far from happy about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. For the past three years, the Chinese put a remarkable level of pressure on North Korea. However, things have changed. The reason becomes obvious from talks I had in the Chinese capital – a significant intensification of the Sino-US imperial rivalry.
Indeed, if China follows US suggestions and introduces comprehensive economic sanctions against North Korea, it might virtually knock the economy out cold because roughly three quarters of North Korea’s economic exchanges are now with China.
Even the decision to stop subsidised trade – above all, the shipment of oil to North Korea at artificially low prices – will deal a serious blow to Pyongyang.
China can take such measures, but why would they? After all, the North Korean state is not well known for caring about its level of economic development.
Sanctions have to be strong enough to seriously endanger North Korea’s domestic political stability. However, China would clearly not welcome a political crisis on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. If North Korea is to plunge into Syria-style domestic chaos, China is likely to be hit hardest.
Equally, China has no enthusiasm for the most likely final outcome of such a crisis: German-style unification under the control and tutelage of a powerful, wealthy and US-allied South Korea.
Such a unified Korean state might create trouble for China – more so now as Seoul’s alliance with Washington is increasingly seen in Beijing as an alliance with its major adversary.
Thus, it appears that at some point last August or September the Chinese leadership decided to abandon the tough approach that they had sought back in 2013.
As a sign that they were in a mood to mend relations, they dispatched Liu Yunshan, a top Beijing decision-maker, to Pyongyang. It seems that none of the subsequent events has made them decide to reverse course. Beijing appears to consider North Korea as a buffer zone against greater US influence in the region.
Recently, the Chinese resolve has been tested twice: in mid-December when the North Koreans suddenly cancelled a high-profile performance of a North Korean musical group (because Chinese officials strongly objected to paeans to nuclear weapons that were to be sung), and the beginning of January when the nuclear test was conducted.
The Chinese position
In both cases reason prevailed, and the Chinese leadership decided, after indicating their displeasure, to continue with the policy in place. It is saying that the Chinese Internet censors began to delete messages critical of North Korea which flooded the Chinese net immediately after both events.
Some in Washington clearly hope that Americans will influence the Chinese position if they react to North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches with a military build-up. Indeed, the Chinese are not pleased by the increase in the US presence in Northeast Asia, and often complain that “North Korea’s actions actually help the Americans”.
Nonetheless, nobody in Beijing sees this military build-up as sufficient reason to take measures which might put North Korea’s internal stability at risk.
All this does not bode well for Kerry. At best, he might persuade the Chinese to support minor, or purely symbolic, additional sanctions. But it seems more likely that he will return home empty-handed.
The Korean peninsula is once again becoming the proxy frontline in yet another Cold War, and the North Korean leadership seemingly knows how to make the most of this situation.
Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.