With tensions escalating rapidly again on the Korean peninsula, the attention of the world invariably has returned to the question of whether or not the solution to the crisis lies in Beijing. After months of continuing missile tests by North Korea despite sanctions and global condemnation, Kim Jong-un’s regime claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb and once again launched an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. North Korea’s march toward wielding a nuclear arsenal against its neighbors and far off enemies, like the United States, is nearing completion. For Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), North Korea’s obstinate drive toward becoming a nuclear force has dealt Beijing a critical challenge at a moment when the party would prefer to focus on other matters seen as as essential to its rise as a regional and world power.
Hope and frustration leveled at Xi and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stems in part from two assumptions. The first is the general conviction that North Korea is a rogue state so reckless — and its leader, Kim, so maniacal — that it is not driven by rational interests or goals, a point contested by more nuanced and historically informed perspectives offered by scholars such as Bruce Cumings and Adam Cathcart. The second assumption is that the PRC’s leverage over Pyongyang is considerable enough to force Kim to avert course. True enough, China is North Korea’s top ally and trading partner, responsible for supplying the country with the majority of its fossil fuels and much needed food. It is also true that Beijing has played a prominent role through its seat on the Security Council in undermining efforts at the United Nations to sanction North Korea in the past.
Based on these assumptions, the Obama administration and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations laid the blame at China’s feet when faced with North Korean resolve to enhance its weapons. And while some see the Trump administration as seeking a complete overhaul of the Obama era in this area there has been continuity between the two leaders. Trump has doubled-down and heaped pressure upon China to “solve” the international crisis or face stiff consequences, encouraged by pundits and policymakers convinced that Beijing alone has the necessary leverage to influence Pyongyang.
But there is also a bit of self-serving shuffling going on here in trying to make sure that China, not Washington and its allies, is seen as responsible for any conflict in Korea. Laying the blame on China obfuscates the central role the United States played in the division of Korea, its civil war, and the role that American bombing of the north and housing of nuclear weapons in the south has played in driving the Kim dynasty toward the conviction that only a nuclear arsenal could guarantee its survival.
North Korea’s dependence on the Chinese is also questionable. Historians such as Mitchell Lerner have documented the importance of the North Korean ideology of juche, the glorification of self-reliance, as key to the country’s identity. More recently Lerner has pointed out there have been notable periods, such as the 1960s, when North Korea asserted its independence and flatly resisted Beijing’s gravity. While Pyongyang and Beijing reconciled after the Cultural Revolution and shelved the name-calling, it was more mutual interests than any affinity for each other that bound the two together for the remainder of the Cold War. He is also quick to point out that relations have worsened considerably since end of the conflict in the 1990s. China’s renewal of relations with the West and South Korea have heightened North Korea’s fears of abandonment and complete encirclement by its enemies. As a result, Lerner argues forcefully for the United States to “consider a wide variety of measures, even unilateral ones, that carry significant risks” such as rigid sanctions enforcement, attacking North Korea’s money-laundering schemes, newer forms of electronic warfare and sabotage, and a military strike.
Other experts have stressed that China’s reluctance to act or intervene against North Korea’s nuclear program is the result of the great risk it poses for national security. In this respect it is thought that Chinese leadership is primarily plagued by two fears. First, the thought of renewed war in Korea prompts Chinese leaders to imagine millions of Korean refugees flowing across the Yalu River, sapping the economy, sowing disorder, and perhaps leaving a collapsed nuclear state as its neighbor. The second fear is that of the unification of the Korean peninsula governed by Seoul, which partially explains why Beijing remains wedded to Pyongyang. Such a result would bring an ally of the United States and its military to China’s vulnerable borders in the north, an unacceptable outcome for national security and the party’s ambitions in the Pacific.
These assumptions and fears are why a number of scholars and commentators have argued that Beijing prefers maintaining the status quo, opposed to the removal of North Korea’s leadership because of the massive risks and costs likely to be endured by the PRC. This is why, it is argued, Beijing typically advises against threatening military action or tougher sanctions, but instead counsels the world to pursue talks to reduce tensions that will bring relations between North Korea and the world back to equilibrium.
However, the Chinese response to the current crisis suggests that Beijing views North Korea as the primary threat to the status quo it so prefers in its backyard. Only a few days after the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, publicly announced that the PRC “will not accept North Korea as nuclear weapons state.” While still shifting the onus back onto Washington and Pyongyang to pursue dialogue, Cui’s comments were intended as a stern warning to North Korea and set a clear cap on Kim’s nuclear ambitions.
But what are the options available to Xi Jinping and the CCP in response to North Korea’s nuclear program? How is Beijing likely to respond to future missile tests and/or threats to pursue unilateral action by the Trump administration? Answers to these questions will be endlessly debated in the next few years. But the discussion should start by considering Xi and the party’s unique perspective on China’s current historical moment — the era of the so-called Chinese Dream — to understand what exactly is at stake for Beijing in North Korea. Secondly, Beijing’s long history with Korea suggests that Xi will look to the past for guidance in dealing with an unruly neighbor and encroachment by another power within its sphere of influence.
Currently, a conflict in Korea threatens to derail Xi’s drive to fulfill his promise to bring the People’s Republic of China into the age of the Chinese Dream. An idea that expresses the party and public’s desire for China to achieve prosperity and global influence, Xi has used this concept in speeches and official announcements frequently since coming to power to both popularize his reforms, foreign policy, and enhance his own personal authority. While future oriented, the concept of the Chinese Dream is also a nostalgic expression of Xi and the Chinese public’s desire to return to the brilliance and power of China’s most powerful dynasties like the Han, Tang, Ming, and Qing. During the heights of those dynasties, Korea was a tributary and largely peaceful neighbor receptive to Chinese influence in the form of Confucianism, poetry, and ceramics. But during their dynastic declines, empires such as the Ming and later Qing also saw their power and resources drained away as they lost control of the Korean peninsula.
In this respect, Korea is a bellwether for the Chinese Dream, just as it measured the greatness of past Chinese empires. Economically, any conflict in North Korea comes at a time when the PRC is vibrant but vulnerable. Although the economy in 2017 is currently on target for growth and looking strong, the country is still in the midst of a major transition toward a “supply side” market system. Reforms meant to reduce taxes, eliminate red tape, and wean the economy of dependence on land sales, massive construction projects, and generous loans slowed the nation’s growth a bit in 2015-2016. Additionally, Xi and the CCP have at times moved too cautiously as reformers, fearing that shocks such as the declining role of state-owned enterprises would lead to calls to abandon course. Worse, issues stemming from China’s severe pollution and struggles with urbanization imperil the continued growth of the middle class needed to make the transition complete. Xi’s top priority, however, remains ensuring that the economy successfully undertakes such a transition while protecting the party’s legitimacy.
But the Chinese Dream is about much more than just continuing the nation’s remarkable economic miracle. Over the past few years, Xi has staked a claim to wielding greater hold on the party and its future than his predecessors based largely on promises to deliver China’s return to the political and cultural dominance in Asia. Such ambitions have been laid clear in the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the gradual build-up of the People’s Liberation Army, and the pressing of territorial claims in the South China Sea. As a result, Beijing has gained greater influence over its neighbors in Central Asia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and many others. But its revival as a power has also been met with resistance from the United States, Japan, and South Korea. China’s path to dominance requires, though, that the region remain peaceful and the rivalry with the United States not become a full-scale conflict.
Simultaneous to these efforts to establish Chinese power and influence abroad, Xi has launched campaigns designed to preserve unity, quell dissent, and promote his popularity at home. In this respect, the campaigns against graft and corruption of party members and avoidance of a Tiananmen-style crackdown against protests in Hong Kong have both been moderately successful. But these issues also illuminate the difficulty of Xi’s domestic challenges in the next few years. Like the burgeoning role of the Internet and social media in China, these issues are unlikely to go away but instead become more and more difficult to manage while asserting his authority.
The crisis surrounding North Korea then comes at a time when China seems primed for global power but also has numerous, complex, serious challenges to confront in the coming decades. It is a problem that risks undermining China’s strategic interests and stability by throwing the region into conflict and heaping obligations on Beijing when it would prefer to focus on other matters. Initiatives central to the Chinese Dream like the Silk Road or the transformation of the economy would likely languish from a lack of attention or resources should a conflict break out over North Korea.
However, as the past few years have shown, the frequent provocations by North Korea have been costly for Xi and the party, too. North Korea’s tests led Seoul to accept an agreement to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), angering Beijing by bringing a U.S. missile defense system nearer to its doorstep. While the CCP has used a government-led boycott to hit back at South Korea, the PRC will be unable to prevent a buildup of U.S. military assets along its borders if Kim continues to frequently threaten the region. U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet about holding the PRC financially accountable for North Korea by cracking down on trade with China is perhaps unlikely. But Washington’s goal of holding Beijing politically accountable for Pyongyang will undermine Xi and the CCP’s standing internationally. Worse, every missile test that flies over Japanese islands or into its waters empowers Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Japanese public to contemplate the need for their own buildup of conventional military power, a scenario that would make pressings its claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands much more difficult.
Domestically ,the results of the recent crisis have been troubling, too. Adding to Xi’s headaches is that these provocations comes just as he enters October and the momentous 19th Party Congress, a critical event on the party’s political calendar where the Chinese leader will attempt to solidify his hold on the party and defy pressure to announce his successor. Chinese netizens voice opinions that give evidence of a general public that is more afraid of North Korea as a threat to national security and angry with Kim for his brinkmanship. Further, China’s central bank and Beijing have promised to adhere to the new tightened sanctions called for by the Trump administration and to close trade loopholes with North Korea. In the long run, this concession will likely end up with all parties — Kim, Trump, and those Chinese firms and banks involved with North Korea — disappointed and angry with Xi.The current crisis is at best a distraction for Xi, but also potentially much worse, an embarrassment at a very inopportune moment when he wants so badly to cement his hold on the country and party.
This has led credence to the theory put forward by some experts that one of the central motivations behind the timing of North Korea’s provocations has been to embarrass the Chinese and blackmail them into continued support. In essence, Kim has exploited the CCP’s fears of his country’s collapse and used these threats to disrupt the improving relations between the PRC and South Korea since the 1990s. Certainly, there is also ample evidence that relations have worsened substantially between Beijing and Pyongyang in the last few years. Kim’s uncle and other officials thought to have close ties to the Chinese were eliminated ruthlessly a few years back, while more recently his exiled half brother Kim Jong-nam, who had been living under Beijing’s protection, was assassinated in Malaysia.
These actions suggest something more than just extortion, rather they reflect Kim’s recognition that China would have much to gain from his removal in North Korea. For China, a regime change (with North Korea still intact) could avert both a disastrous nuclear war and the unification of a Korea allied to the United States. While such a belief might seem especially paranoid to some who see the PRC and North Korea as bound irrevocably to each other, for Kim and many Koreans, north and south, it reflects the longer history of Sino-Korea relations with China exerting its might on the peninsula in the hopes of creating a subordinate regime. It reflects that in the past one of the key markers of the strength of Chinese empires was the creation of a loyal, peaceful tributary state in Korea. In this respect, Kim’s quest for survival by becoming a nuclear power runs headlong into conflict with Xi’s desire for a quiet backyard. Increasingly, Beijing is looking at North Korea as a hindrance to its pursuit of greater ambitions.
Americans would be wise to remember their own history as well — in this case the Korean War — to consider how any “unilateral action” taken by Washington will result in an immediate response by Beijing. Should conflict ever break out on the Korean peninsula, the People’s Liberation Army stands ready to resume the role it played during the Korean War and prevent U.S. military power from nearing the Yalu River. It would likely not do so in defense of Kim but rather to maintain a buffer state. Beijing signaled as much in the days after the most recent test as the PLA engaged in exercises designed to impress upon both North Korea and the United States that it is ready to treat both as hostile in a future conflict.
For now, Xi and Beijing will pursue talks and hope to preserve the status quo to prevent North Korea from sidelining the Chinese Dream. But China’s strategic interests and long range vision for the country mean that Beijing is likely to move in the direction of exploring options for ending the Kim dynasty in the north and replacing him with a Korean ruler pliant to Chinese demands. And should North Korea, in the coming decade, ever seriously imperil the pursuit of the Chinese Dream, Beijing will have to contemplate more drastic measures.
Dr. Anthony Miller is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of World History at Miami University where he teaches courses related to the Cold War and Modern Chinese History. Prior to working for Miami University, he worked for US universities in the People’s Republic of China and Japan while continuing his research on the Cold War in East Asia.