By William Tucker
Washington has decided to postpone an intercontinental ballistic missile test at Vandenberg Air Force Base this week due to tensions with North Korea. It may seem a strange move considering the assets the U.S. had made available for the recent war games with South Korea, but it is logical. Any deployment of military hardware to South Korea that seemed out of the norm could easily be sent under the guise of the war games, but a ballistic missile test could easily be mistaken as an overt provocative measure. Though some have criticized the decision to delay the test as “blinking” in the midst of the standoff with North Korea, Washington has other regional issues to consider. The most profound of which is China. China has a unique relationship with North Korea and Beijing has used this special relationship for its own interests. North Korea on the other hand is weary of any excessive dependence on a foreign power. Not only does it go against Kim il-Sung’s philosophy of Juche, but this type of dependence has historically been disastrous for the Korean people. China understands this, but China also knows that North Korea has few other options for support.
China does understand something else about North Korean politics, however. There is a large portion of North Korean elites – both members of the military and the Korean Worker’s Party – that favor closer ties to the U.S. as a way to balance China. This is a nonstarter for Beijing. The U.S. already has a fixed military presence in South Korea and Japan, small training missions in the Philippines, and a very capable naval presence in the region. In essence, the U.S. has a military presence that surrounds most of China’s access to the ocean – a rather inconvenient position for an export oriented economy. Fighting for influence with the U.S. in Pyongyang is not something that interests China. This is not to say that competing influence with the U.S. would be disastrous for China as North Korea would continue to follow its own interests, but China does not want to give the U.S. any more leeway in region than it already has. This is one of the reasons China hasn’t pushed too hard on Pyongyang to change or modify their behavior. China has felt for years that taking a passive approach to North Korea would prevent the nation from becoming more active in pursuing better relations with the U.S. Beijing may be rethinking that approach and China’s vote in favor of increased sanctions on North Korea may indicate as much.
China has been faced with a U.S. military presence in the region since the end of the Second World War, but with the nation’s profile rising China now sees an opportunity to spread influence in its near abroad. It’s not just about influence, however. For China to feel secure and continue its rise unabated it must first diminish, and eventually remove the U.S. presence in the region. As a demonstration of China’s commitment to this strategy it has created a road map for accomplishing this, but Beijing is being patient in issues regarding the East China Sea. Instead, it is focusing on the South China Sea where the U.S. presence is less significant. That being said, China may see an opportunity with North Korea. If the threat from North Korea were to diminish or collapse in some way, then Beijing may see this as undermining the U.S. justification for such a large military presence in the region. The U.S. has wanted to maintain a military presence in the region for several reasons, although this fixed presence is politically controversial for both the South Koreans and Japanese. This political controversy can at times strain relations, but the threat from North Korea often trumps the basing issues. Because of this reality, China may now view North Korea as more of a liability than an asset.
But abandoning North Korea certainly is not an easy decision to make. Any disruption to the status quo eventually resulting in the downfall of the Kim regime would come with many challenges. Regardless of how that regime collapse were to occur, the reality of the humanitarian disaster in the country and the securing of advanced weaponry would require a large military presence. Because there is such a push for reunification, South Korea and its allies would be the most likely to provide a military presence until the situation stabilized. Though Beijing may eventually accept this, reunification and political stability on the peninsula would take time and test China’s patience in the process. The idea of divorcing itself from North Korea may be attractive to China, but it comes with many unknowns. With China asserting itself in the South China Sea and working hard to modernize and expand its military, the disruption that would ensue following a collapse of the North Korean state may not be desirable just yet. China’s actions toward North Korea in the next few weeks and months should provide good insight into Beijing’s view of its position in the region.