The recent thermonuclear detonation by North Korea has evoked a great concern amongst the international community and with no exception China has firmly opposed the nuclear test. This nuclear explosion has brought the reclusive country to a diplomatic limelight whilst generating skepticism over the test. The fourth North Korean test after 2013, probably could be a modus operandi to showcase its ability to destabilize the region, and an effort to strengthen its nuclear status before the US Presidential election. Probably an impending demand for the withdrawal of US military alliance from South Korea which is envisioned as a threat to the sovereignty of the region. The North Korean test has not left anyone surprised but lots of speculations run high as there is no conclusive reason why this test has been conducted despite Kim Jong-un’s assurance to stop the future testing.
Geographical proximity, cultural and ideological affinity have defined China-North Korea relations. Tracing the past history, China had signed a Treaty of Friendship and alliance with North Korea in 1961 which is intact even today. In 1990 the King Jong II regime adopted the so called first military policy driving the economy to shambles. China economically and diplomatically supported North Korea. For China, North Korea acted as a valuable buffer between South Korea where US soldiers were stationed. Thus almost for a decade survival of North Korea was in the imminent interest of China. China apparently during Kim Jong Ils period was committed to safeguarding and protecting North Korea. Thus China waded Kim Jong-un of North Korea to consolidation of power.
During Hu Jintao’s leadership, China prioritized the survival of the new regime in North Korea. The changing approach of Kim Jong-un’s regime and his defiant action such as testing of ballistic missiles created a lot of apprehension for China thus changing its friendly overtures towards North Korea. China is becoming more firm in its approach towards North Korea. The honeymoon retro no longer continues between the two countries. China’s strong signal hs displeased North Korea. Tough stand by the UN followed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2087 which was well supported by United states and China. This resolution and action testified a strong signal to Pyongyang not to conduct another nuclear test. In spite of the brewing tension in the region, it looks like China is far from ready to abandon North Korea. China is committed to seeking a solution through dialogue probably an attempt to return to the Six Party talks rather than punishing North Korea.
Despite global opprobrium, North Korea continues its act of aggression. These events is making China slowly drift from apart its one time socialist ally North Korea. The traditional ‘lip and teeth’ relation as pronounced by Mao is possibly loosing its relevance. However caution is restrained by China on its approach towards North Korea, as there is an alluring fear that the collapse of the regime in North Korea could get US to China’s border, testifying US government’s foreign policy pivot to Asia.
China is sending a mixed signal on its stand on North Korea. China sometimes soft pedals North Korea while at other times it is very stern in its approach. At this juncture and the aftermath of the test, the Chinese Foreign Ministry is getting tougher and in conjecture with United States, has refused to recognize North Korea as a nuclear armed state. North Korea’s provocative detonation of thermo nuclear weapon has increased the danger of a war in the Korean Peninsula. This probably can embroil China in an unwanted war with United States and its allies. A risk averse China now does not want to get entangled in any conflict that would deter its own interest. Is Xi Jinping recalibrating China’s policy towards North Korea moving forward or does he see North Korea as an unnecessary albatross burdening China with its poor reputation.
Priya Suresh is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution. She tweets @priyamanassa.