China’s Support For Pyongyang Rooted In Self-Interest
During a speech at the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference in early April, China’s new president Xi Jinping declared, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.”
The remarks were read by many foreign policy analysts as a less-than-veiled shot at North Korea’s bullish rhetoric and aggressive actions against states in the Asian Peninsula. The remarks also raised questions as to why China continued to support North Korea despite its growing weariness of Pyongyang’s nuclear shenanigans.
Jonathan Kay, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the answer is quite simple.
“Analyzing Beijing’s foreign policy is a relatively simple exercise. That’s because, unlike the United States and other Western nations, China doesn’t even pretend to operate on any other principle except naked self-interest,” he asserts in The National Post.
China’s Actions Driven By Self-Interest
Timothy Bearsdon echoes Kay in asserting that the seeming incongruity of China’s support for Pyongyang is actually quite understandable even though it has not had kind words for North Korea’s threats in recent months.
While China is not happy that Pyongyang’s aggressive posture has drawn more US forces into the region, Bearsdon says China is merely standing firm on what it believes to be its clear interests.
“The first [interest] is that it went to war in the 1950s to ensure that the US did not dominate its borders. If North Korea collapses, US troops could be on its frontier. Second, in the event of a North Korean collapse, China does not want millions of refugees endangering its stability. The impoverished North Korean population today is estimated at 24 million. China already has two million ethnic Koreans living within its borders,” he writes in The Financial Times.
“It is important to remember that for China the priorities on the Korean Peninsula are peace, stability and denuclearization, in that order, and that China and North Korea still consider each other allies, in spite of recent difficulties,” David Mulrooney, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, contends.
Instability Viewed As Greater Threat Than A Nuclear North
China’s fear of instability in the region, and, more specifically, the prospects of a weakened and unstable North Korea, is seen as a greater threat than its nuclear desires.
Bearsdon’s analysis is echoed in a recent article by Julia Famularo of the Project 2049 Institute, who agrees that China likely will continue to support North Korea because the alternative would be worse.
In fact, she notes that China has feared instability along its borders for centuries and since the Korean War, the North has served as a “useful buffer” between China and US troops in South Korea.
“It has remained in China’s advantage to defend against any major form of political, economic, or social instability in North Korea that could negatively affect China,” she writes.
Policy Unlikely To Change Unless Stability Can Be Ensured
In making her case, she cites Georgetown Professor Victor Cha, who has argued that China is “faced with the choices of rhetorical pressure, quiet diplomacy, and mild sanctions. As long as China continues to value stability on the peninsula more than it worries about a few nuclear weapons, it will not fundamentally change its policy towards its unruly neighbor.”
Cha co-wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine in which he warned of underestimating the threat posed by North Korea and of dismissing the danger posed by Pyongyang as simply the rantings of an insane dictator.