Will China stop a nuclear war? North Korea through the eyes of President Xi

Can Asia's superpower rein in its scrappy neighbour?

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Amidst the turmoil prompted by North Korea’s recent provocations, Donald Trump has argued that China’s economic and political ties to the North gives it the leverage to bring Pyongyang to heel. The US President, though, is over optimistic and unrealistic in assuming that Beijing will deliver a solution to the North Korean conundrum.

The historical bond between North Korea and China was forged in the Korean War of 1950-1953, the first struggle between North and South Korea, in which hundreds and thousands of Chinese soldiers fought and died (including Mao’s own son). Given this close connection, it is understandable that President Trump with his limited grasp of history might assume that Beijing, as the senior allied partner of the North, would be able to talk sense to Pyongyang. China controls some 90 per cent of the North’s food and energy supplies, which should also, in principle, allow it to exert maximum pressure on the North.

Temperamentally, however, North Koreans have been fiercely independent. Kim Jong-un has shown no instinct to play the deferential role of a good Confucian young brother to his older neighbor. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il, who regularly in his final years visited the North to explore the potential for learning from the Chinese model of economic reform, the current North Korean leader has kept his distance, figuratively and literally from China.

Some observers, including Peter Hayes of California’s Nautilus Institute, have suggested that Sunday’s nuclear test, timed to coincide with China’s hosting of a high-profile summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the Brics), was intended to expose Xi Jinping to maximum political embarrassment. This, so the logic goes, would encourage the Chinese leader to put pressure on the Americans to sit down and negotiate directly with Pyongyang. 

However, it's hard to see at this stage why Kim would be particularly eager for talks with Washington. The latest provocations seem more focused on three core objectives. First, boosting the North’s military capabilities and securing a credible nuclear deterrent to guard against any preemptive action by the US. Second, enhancing Kim’s standing at home by demonstrating the technical prowess of the country to a North Korean people buoyed up by examples of successful modernisation. And third, very publicly allowing Kim to challenge Donald Trump and expose the hollowness of his “fire and fury” boasts.

If anything, the cascade of provocations -  repeated missile firing and the latest nuclear test - appears to be deliberately designed to stir up a storm of international opposition. Nothing could be better calculated to enhance Kim’s legitimacy at home than the image of the North surrounded by foreign adversaries. This allows the young leader to represent himself as the indispensable and doughty military protector of a nation under siege. If Kim is genuinely interested in meaningful and immediate talks with the US, his actions appear to be having exactly the opposite effect.

President Xi also is not taking the bait. If anything, he appears determined to remain above the fray. Preoccupied with preparations for the politically important 19th Party Congress in October, his most recent statements, co-ordinated with similar statements from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have called for a peaceful approach to resolving the current conflict. The official Brics concluding communiqué was striking for its brevity. It strongly deplored Sunday’s nuclear test and expressed “deep concern over the ongoing tensions” while stressing that the crisis “should only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue of all the parties concerned”.

Ordinary Chinese people, especially those living close to the border with the North, worry about the risk of exposure to radiation from the North’s tests. There are also concerns about the safety and reliability of the North’s civil nuclear program and its Yongbyon reactor. However, Chinese public frustration with Kim’s behavior seems insufficient to prompt Xi to embrace tougher international sanctions against the North. Japan’s call for an embargo on oil supplies to the North is unlikely to be backed by the Chinese.

The Chinese also know that sanctions are unlikely to be effective in the short-term, given reports that the North has been stockpiling oil reserves since April precisely to guard against such an eventuality. Moreover, a longer, or permanent suspension might ultimately cripple the North, prompting regime collapse and the predicted exodus of North Koreans across the 800 mile border with China.

For now, Xi appears to have concluded that Trump is bluffing when he threatens military action against the North. He also seems unconcerned about Trump's calls for the suspension of all US trade with any country doing business with the North. The latter is nonsensical, non-enforceable, and the blowback from this would be potentially devastating to the US economy (as well as the interests of Trump’s domestic political base).

The Chinese are more likely to be worried by the medium to long-term implications of the current crisis. In Seoul and Tokyo, the appetite is growing for better South Korean and Japanese defence capabilities to deal with the North. A regional arms race is directly at odds with Beijing’s regional strategic interests. Nevertheless, China can respond with its own gradualist strategy of squeezing Seoul economically and politically, while continuing to confront Japan with selective but calibrated military interventions in the East China Sea.

In the short-term, the Chinese can not provide the magic bullet that resolves the North Korean crisis. Beijing is likely to remain wedded to its current policy of calling for calm on all sides, while urging the Americans and the North Koreans in particular to step back from the precipice of military confrontation.

Dr John Nilsson-Wright is Senior Lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations, University of Cambridge & Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia Programme, Chatham House.

He is the author (as John Swenson-Wright) of Unequal Allies: United States Security and Alliance Policy toward Japan, 1945-1960 (Stanford University Press, 2005), and editor of The Politics and International Relations of Modern Korea (Routledge, 2016)