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In fear of being left behind: China’s precarious relationship with North Korea

Published 30 Apr 2018
Christopher Khatouki

On the 27 of March, news reports showed a mysterious armoured train leaving Pyongyang and making its way to Beijing. One day later we would find out that inside this train was Kim Jong Un who was responding to an unprecedented invitation by Xi Jinping to meet for the very first time. The question is: why now?

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the situation in the Korean peninsula has been confusing at best and terrifying at worst. As ‘Little Rocket Man’ Kim Jong Un and the ‘Mentally Deranged Dotard’ Donald Trump exchanged nuclear armed insults, China has watched in hopeless horror as its immediate neighbourhood was shaping to be the grounds of international conflict. Fears of a nuclear Armageddon, however, were calmed as a historic summit between Trump and Kim was announced on the 8th of March 2018.  China, one of the most important stakeholders in the region, has implored the U.S and North Korea to ‘seize the opportunity’. Yet behind closed doors there was no doubt a tangible fear that a new order may form on the Korean peninsula; an order with damaging consequences for China.

In order to understand contemporary events, it is worth briefly examining the tumultuous Chinese – North Korean relationship. China has historically allied itself with North Korea in order to prevent another Imperial force i.e. the United States with its South Korean ally from encroaching on its border and regional influence. It has also provided the economic lifeblood to sustain North Korea and help it overcome its isolation from global markets. Yet this has been far more a marriage of convenience than a starry-eyed relationship of communist brothers. Even before the inception of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the DPRK, relations between the two communist movements were turbulent. The fact that DPRK founder Kim Jong ill was almost executed by Chinese communists, for suspicions of being a member of a pro-Japanese Korean group in 1948, did not help.

Rifts between the nations began to develop further as China gradually opened its economy to the world. While North Korea would deplore China’s abandonment of its founding principles, China would decry the feudalistic nature of the Kim Dynasty and its failing ability to care for its citizens. In recent years, North Korea had also begun to perfect its nuclear arsenal. Its subsequent threats to use this capability against the U.S and its allies must have been of real concern for China. Acting both autonomously and recklessly, North Korea risked stoking the flames of war in China’s own backyard. In response, China has supported international economic sanctions and has allowed domestic criticism of the North Korean regime. ‘Kim Pang Zi’ (Fatty Kim) is now a name often used by Chinese citizens to describe Kim Jong Un. Yet China cannot afford to weaken a crucial buffer against American influence, and North Korea cannot stand to lose its only security partner in a hostile global order. Trapped in an existential security dilemma, China and North Korea have a reluctant but mutual interest in each-others survival.

It is relevant to consider the two most plausible outcomes for the upcoming U.S – North Korea talks. The first being the denuclearisation of North Korea and the second being a complete collapse of negotiations. China stands to lose in both. If North Korea agrees to de-nuclearise, the United States will gain prestige and influence in China’s most important region of influence. Since 2008, in order to counterbalance President Obama’s pivot to Asia, China has accelerated its own efforts to increase its influence within Eurasia. This is evidenced by the establishment of the Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank. Yet this preoccupation on Eurasia could have given the United States the upper hand in Korea. If North Korea capitulates to American pressure, China will find itself surrounded on its eastern flank by nations that are allied or at least amicable with U.S influence. Yet if talks disintegrate then efforts of diplomatic engagement at the very highest of levels have failed; leaving more American and North Korean policy makers to view war as the only definitive solution.

Faced with two possibilities, China risked being either reluctantly dragged into conflict to protect its troublesome neighbour or contend with a regional order without Beijing at the centre. Since they each  came to power, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Supreme leader Kim Jong Un have refused to meet, highlighting bilateral discord. However, fears of regional isolation have no doubt created an acute ‘exclusion anxiety’ for Chinese policy makers. Anxious to assert its regional presence and cautious to avoid exclusion, one thing had now become clear: China had to put aside its differences with its estranged ally and finally make amends.

Christopher Khatouki is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. He is currently completing his honours degree in International Relations at the University of Wollongong. Chris’s area of research is in the dynamics between historical memory and international diplomacy, particularly within East Asia. He is currently the co-ordinator of a university program titled ‘The Language Exchange’ which aims to promote multilingualism within the Illawarra community. In 2016, His current focus is on writing and publishing articles on Chinese foreign policy, Asia Pacific Security and Historical Identity.