Will the China-NK alliance remain stable?
Global Times | 2013-2-17
By Jasper Kim
Given the recent bilateral and UN-based diplomatic discourse between North Korea and China on North Korea’s third nuclear test last week, could Pyongyang and Beijing’s relationship be switching from friends to foes?
The once staunch alliance between North Korea and China has historically been based on shared mutual political interests.
For North Korea, from an economic standpoint, an alliance with China translated into fuel aid and trade revenue, since China provides most of North Korea’s fuel supplies and is its top trading partner.
For China on the other hand, in years past, from a socio-political standpoint, North Korea represented a sought-after strategic buffer zone from thousands of US and South Korean troops and any other military presence, above and beyond the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel that has separated the two Koreas since 1953, the year of the armistice ending the Korean War (1950-53).
From the US perspective, as per its stated Asian pivot, the US-South Korea alliance represents a much needed opportunity to maintain a military presence up to the 38th parallel, above and beyond its military presence in nearby Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Australia, and other strategic locations.
From South Korea’s perspective, maintaining a strategic, albeit shrinking, troop-level presence onshore also represents a not so subtle US and UN military defense security guarantee in the event of a major incursion against South Korea’s sovereign borders or national security interests by North Korea.
Relating to the recently evolving Sino-North Korean diplomatic dynamic – and specifically, how China should treat its Stalinist state neighbor – several perspectives can be taken.
First, there is the traditionalist view which dictates that the Sino-North Korean relationship is one that should continue forward as it has in the past – in terms of economic and geopolitical support – primarily based on the history of alliance between the two countries and their respective leaders.
Second, there is the absolutist view, which states that the Sino-North Korean relationship should be disentangled, given the fact that North Korea’s actions are increasingly unpredictable, and perhaps just as importantly, are increasingly embarrassing to Beijing’s leadership as it is seen as being unable to assert its leadership over the secretive Stalinist state.
Third, there is the cost-benefit calculus view which oscillates between the traditionalist and absolutist views, specifically, that the Sino-North Korean relationship can either be one of an outright alliance or not, based on a multi-factor cost-benefit analysis.
In other words, China should continue to support and outright align itself with North Korea if, but only if, the benefits of supporting North Korea outweigh its related costs, China’s benefits being the aforementioned geopolitical factors.
In contrast, related costs in the calculus are ever-changing, which may tilt the cost-benefit calculus conclusion from a yes to no, in terms of whether Beijing should continue to support Pyongyang.
Related costs could include, but not be limited to, North Korea’s actions potentially or actually negatively impacting China’s increasing rise as a global socio-political and economic superpower, loss of geopolitical legitimacy for supporting an increasingly rogue state from the viewpoint of the international community, embarrassment by being seen as being rebuked or ignored by North Korea, straining of the Sino-US relationship which may trigger a political or economic backlash in various forms, and the cost of providing fuel and economic aid which could instead be used to support other actual or potential future allies within and beyond Asia.
Pyongyang has so far relied on the singular premise that Beijing’s leadership holds the traditionalist view.
But even if the traditionalist view is one that China’s leadership harbored throughout the Cold War period, this premise fails to account for the possibility that Beijing’s leadership at some point may consider and implement the absolutist or cost-benefit calculus views as a matter of policy to North Korea’s possible detriment.
Such a change may occur if the Sino-North Korean relationship continues to deteriorate with more provocative acts by Pyongyang.
For these reasons, the Sino-North Korean dynamic in the 21st century – what I refer to as the “Chimerica century” – is in flux, unlike in years before, which may unexpectedly reconstitute China’s pivot sometime in the future from “China with North Korea” to “China versus North Korea.”
The author is the founder and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.
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