First, directly defying the international community, North Korea detonates a nuclear device Feb. 12. This was its third, just weeks after its provocative long-range rocket test. Both actions, like all its previous ones, violated UN Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang said it acted because of the "reckless hostility" of the United States.
Then China plays its ritualistic role, expressing its "firm opposition" to the test while calling on "all sides" to exercise restraint. But Beijing was quick this time to neuter even its moral condemnation of the North Korean regime’s behavior. An article in the Chinese government’s official news agency cited a North Korean military leader’s “determination to fight against the hostile policies of the United States and Japan with more powerful means.”
We will see what China does about proposed United Nations sanctions, but if it follows its past practice, it will water them down while going along just enough to maintain its pretense as a responsible international player.
We can be reasonably certain, however, that Beijing will not exercise its unique leverage as North Korea’s main supplier of fuel and food. Its rationale, echoed by many in the West, is that the mere threat of pressure would trigger Pyongyang’s collapse and send a flood of refugees across the border. That argument suggests that China cares more about the North Korean regime’s survival than the regime does itself.
So Beijing never calls Pyongyang’s hand, and the West never calls Beijing’s.
In fact, rather than being yet another helpless victim of North Korea’s erratic behavior, China has benefited from it. As an indispensable partner in the Six Party Talks and other multilateral and bilateral discussions on North Korea's nuclear program, Beijing has gained considerable leverage in confrontations with the West over human rights, trade, proliferation, and other issues.
At the same time, North Korea’s constant challenges to the international community have served as a distraction from China’s own increasingly aggressive actions in the region – which Beijing defines as defensive responses against Western “containment.”
It is fitting, though disturbing, that the two communist governments employ self-serving rhetoric reminiscent of Nazi- and Soviet-era paranoia. Dictatorships typically invoke external threats to stoke nationalism as a substitute for political legitimacy.
China needs to persuade North Korea that it is on a dangerous course with unpredictable consequences – right after the West convinces China of that reality.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.