China's Fears of Losing Its Rogue Buffer State Must Be Calmed

March 20, 2018 13:27

China's state-run Global Times titled an editorial on Monday "Nothing should come between China and North Korea." The mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party wrote, "The North Korean nuclear crisis has placed Pyongyang under the spotlight of global public opinion, which is basically dominated by information from South Korean, Japanese and Western media. For China and North Korea, the major tests are how to keep the right balance between their divergences over the nuclear issue... and how to avoid the influence of South Korean, Japanese or Western media."

It made the absurd claims that North Korea "is a respectable country" and concluded by saying, "For North Korea, it would be difficult and dangerous to cope with Seoul, Washington and Tokyo all alone. China's support can defuse many risks. It is hoped that the Communist Party of China and the Workers' Party of Korea can remain the bedrock of relations between the two countries, making sure that no opportunist can find a market or opportunity to harm Beijing-Pyongyang ties."

Yet as recently as April last year, China's state media claimed that China would not intervene military even if the U.S. launches surgical strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities. Now their attitudes shifted drastically after North Korea and the U.S. agreed to hold a summit, raising fears in Beijing that it is being sidelined by its own buffer state because it took part in international sanctions against the North, though belatedly, while ties between Washington and Pyongyang are warming. One Chinese diplomat said Chinese businesses that traded with North Korea now face bankruptcy, underscoring fears that China could end up with the short end of the stick.

Intensifying jostling between the U.S. and China over global hegemony is making things worse. Trump has threatened to impose huge tariffs on Chinese imports and even allowed a high-level Taiwanese diplomat to visit Washington, which could rattle Beijing's "One China" policy.

Kim may be waving an olive branch at South Korea and the U.S., but his gaze is probably fixed on China. The North Korean leader is deliberately making China nervous by warming up to South Korea and the U.S. with the aim of getting Beijing to sidestep international sanctions. If China does this surreptitiously in order to appease North Korea, all efforts so far to get the North to come to the dialogue table will come to nothing. And any inclination, however faint, that Kim has to scrap his nuclear weapons will dissipate.

China has always feared regime collapse in the North more than its nuclear armament because it is afraid of increasing U.S. influence in Asia. China's greatest fear is seeing U.S. military bases set up across the border in North Korea. This fear is at the center of the confrontation between Washington and Beijing over North Korea's nuclear weapons. But it is not impossible to get China on board. Seoul succeeded in mediating between North Korea and the U.S. It now desperately needs to mediate between Washington and Beijing so that the two superpowers share the same views when it comes to dismantling the North's nuclear weapons. Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, is visiting South Korea on March 28. Seoul needs to hold frank discussions with China and listen to Beijing's concerns, but make it absolutely clear that it cannot loosen international sanctions to pressure North Korea. This is a dangerous crossroads in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.
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