Ever since it was clear that Pyongyang was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, US officials and Asia experts have assured the world that Beijing was every bit as worried as the rest of us – indeed, that proximity to its volatile ally gave it even more cause for concern.
Those assurances glossed over the fact that Chinese nuclear technology was the starting point for the North Korean program, both directly and through the proliferation network of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, who originally got it from China. They also ignored Beijing’s overwhelming leverage over Pyongyang given the latter’s dependence on Chinese food and fuel.
Western equanimity regarding Chinese intentions prevailed despite almost two decades of Beijing’s UN Security Council obstructionism, which shielded North Korea from serious international sanctions.
Moreover, Chinese officials never expressed any of the concerns attributed to them by Western officials and scholars. Instead, they talked blandly of “peaceful resolution” and “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” meaning elimination of a US nuclear deterrent against renewed North Korean aggression.
Still, Western governments accepted Beijing’s assurance of cooperation and made it the key player in the six-party talks devoted to reining in the North Korean nuclear program. China’s elevated status as a putative responsible stakeholder brought not only world prestige but also great leverage over Washington in negotiations on a range of other internal and international issues. American officials were reluctant to press China on human rights, Taiwan, or trade because “we need them on North Korea.”
Meanwhile, the Pyongyang problem has been a major distraction for US diplomacy and strategic planning, a result not unwelcome in Beijing. As befits longtime allies, China and North Korea, despite occasional frictions, work together to serve their own and each other’s interests, not those of the international community.