Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi issued a "stern representation" to North Korean Ambassador Ji Jae Ryong on Feb. 12, expressing China's "strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition" to North Korea's latest nuclear test. China's official statement was a near copy of its statements responding to North Korea's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. Each has declared China's opposition to the test, called on Pyongyang to honor its commitment to denuclearization and for responses to be through dialogue (rather than physical means), and encouraged the resumption of talks within the six-party framework.
Within China, academics and policy experts are suggesting it is time to rethink China's traditional view of and relationship with North Korea. During the Cold War and beyond, China has seen North Korea as a strategic buffer, creating space between the Chinese border and U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan. But China's own naval power is growing, its army is modernizing and, in the current global environment, it is highly unlikely that the United States would consider an invasion of China through the Korean Peninsula. Although China's relations with North Korea also allowed Beijing to offer its mediation with Pyongyang in return for political gestures from the United States, China or Japan, Pyongyang's repeated nuclear tests and missile launches have seen Beijing either unable or unwilling to keep North Korea in line. With this potential bargaining position fading, the political cost of support for the North at times outweighs the benefit.
Inside China, there is a growing argument suggesting that rather than use North Korea as a political bargaining chip and a shield (and thus be held hostage to aggressive North Korean actions), take stronger action toward the North and respond more harshly and use the issue of North Korea as a place for stronger China-U.S. cooperation. China would like to shift the six-party nuclear talks into the initial framework for a Northeast Asian security dialogue mechanism. As far back as February 2007, China managed to shift the underlying structure of the six-party nuclear dialogue with North Korea, moving it beyond focusing solely on North Korean behavior to a broader dialogue dealing with regional security issues.
From Beijing's perspective, one of the key elements of the 2007 accord was the establishment of five working groups. Two of these would focus on bilateral political relations (U.S.-North Korea and Japan-North Korea), one headed by South Korea would look at regional energy and economic cooperation and one led by China would focus on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Beijing's strongest interest was in a planned Russian-led working group to develop a Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism. Instead of placing North Korea in the center of attention, it would focus instead on broader challenges, including the implications of the large permanent U.S. military presence in the region. Five years on, the working group has hardly moved beyond its inception, but the idea behind it remains high on Beijing's agenda.
Despite the desire to shift the regional security focus away from North Korea and to the broader question of legitimate spheres of influence and the role of the U.S. military in Asia, China is not willing to completely abandon North Korea. China remains by far the North's largest trading partner, allowing it to access North Korean natural resources and extend its economic and political influence as well as reducing the likelihood of an internal North Korean crisis that could send waves of refugees (and possibly North Korean weapons) into northeastern China. Beijing will take some punitive actions against the North, perhaps temporarily disrupting oil supplies as it did in 2003, but Pyongyang has anticipated these moves and knows Beijing is unlikely to sustain any additional sanctions on critical supplies of food or fuel.
But this only emphasizes China's difficult position regarding North Korea. Despite its economic dependence on its much more powerful neighbor, North Korea remains confident it can act outside of China's stated desires. This weakens Beijing's ability to offer itself as a mediator in dialogue with the North and to keep the North in check. The occasional North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches can be seen as beneficial to China in driving other countries such as the United States and Japan to China to talk through Beijing to Pyongyang, but this tool only works if the perception exists that China can or will exert influence on the North. That perception is degraded further with each North Korean test. In the end, Beijing remains locked in a relationship with a North Korea that appears to hold the weaker hand but continues to be able to manipulate China's needs and concerns.