North Korea’s Strategic Significance to China

Pritish Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

The Chinese saying ‘if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold’ has often underscored the relationship between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The standard perception that China has been North Korea’s natural ally and strategic asset never lost resonance. Geographical proximity and ideological similarities also played a significant role in the bilateral relationship. However, as Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011 and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions began to be purposefully pursued, China’s North Korea policy evolved with a strategic orientation.

Under President Xi Jinping, as Beijing began to increasingly identify itself as a great power, it adopted a more pragmatic approach towards the Korean peninsula. With a sharp strategic competition with the United States over the years, North Korea has become an important vector in China’s evolving foreign policy in pursuit of Xi’s Chinese dream.

The 2017-18 crisis on the Korean peninsula sparked a debate in Beijing’s questioning its continued support to Pyongyang, though Beijing continued with its North Korea policy, which is based on the geopolitical calculus.

The question of stability on the Korean Peninsula

In terms of China’s interests in the Korean peninsula, North Korea acts as a variable in regional competition with the United States. It maintains cordial relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) while maintaining its strategic influence in the region. Beijing is apprehensive about any conflict in its backyard as it may jeopardize its strategic advantage on the Korean peninsula. In case of an imminent threat to its regime, North Korea may resort to a conflict with South Korea, which would lead to instability and uncertainty in the region. Clearly, Beijing prioritizes a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula over the denuclearization of the DPRK. The collapse of the regime may invite all the stakeholders, the United States, South Korea, and China, to intervene militarily to stabilize the peninsula, which might prove to be detrimental to the Chinese interests.

Beijing opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear program but prefers peace and stability over a full-blown conflict. Beijing fears that a direct intervention from the United States and South Korea over DPRK’s nuclear program may result in a unified Korean peninsula. The challenges of a unified peninsula could also pose concerns for Beijing. China has stuck to its principle of ‘no war, no instability, and no nukes’ to avoid any conflict on its borders. North Korea acts as a buffer state for China against South Korea as well as the presence of US troops. It plays well for Beijing that the North Korean regime remains intact where it acts as leverage on the backdrop of US rebalancing to Asia.

Avoiding a refugee crisis

One of the main concerns for China will be dealing with a refugee crisis if there is a potential conflict across the China-North Korea border. Both countries share an 880-mile border. Given any escalation of economic stress in North Korea, there would be a significant number of North Koreans seeking refuge in China, which could result in a humanitarian crisis. It would be a herculean task for the People’s Liberation Army to prevent North Koreans from crossing the border. China’s northeast provinces would always remain vulnerable with the development of any future events on the Korean peninsula.

Economic Aid

Beijing’s potential leverage over Pyongyang is also important for the survival of the North Korean regime. China has been the source of continued assistance to the hermit kingdom. Beijing has always found ways to skirt the sanctions imposed by the United States in the wake of the nuclear program. China has been cautious in dealing with North Korea over denuclearization, which might instigate instability. It understands that any response from Pyongyang may have an adverse effect on the bilateral relationship, Chinese interests and may diminish Beijing’s influence.

US-China equation

The Korean peninsula is a strategic theatre for great power competition between the United States and China. China’s strategic priority has been to contain the US influence in the region. Talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled after the failure of the Hanoi summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. The Biden administration would vary in the fact that its foreign policy approach should push for normalizing relations with North Korea. The withering of the US’s multilateral trade framework in Asia favors China’s interests. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China twice before the proposed US-North Korea summits, which strengthened Beijing’s position with respect to the negotiations between both the countries. Also, the possibility of a trilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea against China is never ruled out.

Way forward

The global pandemic and fraught relations between the United States and China may impede the prospects of a resolution of the crisis on the peninsula. Though, China has expressed its willingness to play a productive role in the political solution of the issue along with other stakeholders. The targeted sanctions on North Korea have done little to contain its nuclear program. The resumption of the Six-Party Talks could lead to a breakthrough in the negotiations. The new US administration would have its hands full after taking charge with the issue of the Korean peninsula still unresolved and US-China relations at an all-time low. The coronavirus pandemic has led to North Korea being more dependent on Beijing as well. The normalization of relations would give an opening to the American policymakers to work towards the reduction of troops in South Korea, thus reducing the tensions in the region, but if denuclearization of North Korea continues to be a precondition by the Biden administration for normalization of relations and easing of crippling economic sanctions on North Korea, then chances of any forward movement towards peace are rather slim. Though, it is understandable that Beijing’s support for Pyongyang would continue for the foreseeable future, and Beijing’s role would be central in the resolution of the crisis.