In 1886, a Qing dynasty emissary described Korea as "a child struggling to leave its parents." But he may not have given Korea enough credit: In addition to a defiant vassal state, Korea was also an important land buffer between China and several other hostile powers. As the 19th century drew to a close, those rivals began to carve out their own footholds in the peninsula, gradually eroding China's once-formidable presence there.
Korea, in an effort to survive the competition among great powers, began to play a risky game. It started to intentionally provoke its larger adversaries, leveraging its relationship with China to guarantee its protection from retaliation. Peking — or as it is known today, Beijing — reluctantly embraced its newfound role as an intermediary between Korea and the West. Yet Korea's historical defiance proved difficult to rein in, and China found it harder and harder to shield its obstinate neighbor from its enemies. By the turn of the 20th century, the peninsula had fallen into Japanese hands, and China was on the verge of entering one of the most painful periods in its modern history.
Since the end of World War II, China and North Korea have largely picked up where they left off. Despite the profound geopolitical changes that have occurred in Northeastern Asia over the past half-century, the basic foundation of the two countries' relationship remains intact, as does the behavior it dictates. North Korea, split from its thriving and diplomatically dynamic southern half, has resumed its age-old pursuit for survival against perceived threats such as the United States. No longer satisfied with the limitations its former strategy entailed, however, Pyongyang has adopted an even more provocative approach, combining isolationism with military buildups and nuclear deterrence to hold the world's great powers at bay.
China, meanwhile, continues to consider the Korean Peninsula its most strategic bulwark. But with the South a staunch U.S. ally, the North has taken on even greater importance in China's efforts to keep foreign foes off its doorstep. Though Pyongyang's erratic policies routinely conflict with Beijing's own, creating headaches for Chinese leaders, China's options for shaping North Korea's behavior will continue to be limited so long as maintaining a neutralized and relatively stable state on its border remains its greatest imperative.
Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils
This explains why China is fairly ambivalent toward Pyongyang's nuclear program. For one, Beijing understands that the North Korean government considers nuclear weapons to be one of its last resorts in safeguarding the security of the country and its leaders. Though Beijing has its own concerns about the idea of a nuclear North Korea, it prefers that outcome over the collapse of the government in Pyongyang. Such a political upset could create a power vacuum on China's northeastern border that other countries — particularly the United States — might try to exploit.
Moreover, Beijing's desire to maintain a relationship with the North Korean government hampers its ability to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear activities — whether through sanctions or by other means. Keeping an administration that is friendly with China (or at the very least, neutral) in power is paramount, and Beijing will exhaust every diplomatic avenue available to prevent the international community from intervening militarily in North Korea.
China likewise will do everything it can to prevent the North's reunification with the South. Beijing is well aware that should the two halves merge, Seoul — economically, politically and militarily stronger than Pyongyang — would undoubtedly dominate the peninsula's foreign policy, a result that is unlikely to work in China's favor.
More Liability Than Leverage
North Korea has come to rely on China's pragmatic stance for its own diplomatic dealings abroad. But Pyongyang's mounting hostility toward the rest of its region has begun to severely compromise the strategic gains Beijing makes by backing it. As the prospect of a nuclear North Korea has moved closer to becoming a reality, China has also found itself less able to restrain the recalcitrant government in Pyongyang. This state of affairs has given rise to several problems for the Chinese government.
For instance, Pyongyang's steadfast refusal to shutter its nuclear program has caused international pressure to build against Beijing. China's relationship with North Korea — once a crucial source of leverage against the United States, South Korea and Japan — is quickly becoming a liability. With military options largely off the table at present, Washington and its allies have turned to sanctions as a means of forcing Pyongyang to capitulate. But Beijing, fearing the destabilizing consequences of the North Korean government's potential collapse, has defied them, putting it at odds with the United States and its Asian neighbors.
At the same time, the looming threat of a nuclear North Korea has spurred the United States and its allies to assume a more aggressive military posture in the region. Washington, for instance, has strengthened its defense agreements with Tokyo and Seoul by reaffirming its commitment to provide them with extended deterrence. It is also in the process of deploying Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to South Korea. Each of these developments has made China's long-term security environment more precarious, adding to the threat already posed by the potential nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Rethinking an Unreliable Partnership
As North Korea's actions have grown less predictable and more provocative under Kim Jong Un's rule, Beijing has found itself increasingly estranged from its longtime ally. This, coupled with rising international concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear program, has renewed debate among Chinese policy circles about Beijing's options for dealing with its unruly ally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a growing faction has called for Beijing to toughen or replace its current approach by taking a harder line against Pyongyang. This group's proposals have included ousting Kim from power, slapping sanctions on his administration, supporting surgical strikes by Washington and Seoul, or even stationing troops across the border.
Of course, none of these ideas are new or without their own risks — some even greater than the ones China currently faces. For instance, forcing a leadership transition in North Korea, let alone mounting an actual invasion, would fly in the face of China's long-standing policy of staying out of other states' affairs. Meanwhile, imposing sanctions would likely do little to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions; it could even weaken the government's hold on power and, by extension, undermine security on China's border.
This is not to say that China has no room to become more proactive in its dealings with North Korea, or will not retain those contingency plans if it sees its greatest imperatives threatened. China is still the nation most able to economically and politically shape Pyongyang's actions. It could, for instance, try more assertively to restart negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. When Peking took a similar approach in the 1880s, gradually assuming a more active role in shaping Korea's foreign policy and regaining authority there, it boosted its own diplomatic standing abroad. The Communist Party is well-versed in the lessons of Chinese history, and it is certainly aware of the benefits its partnership with North Korea can bring. Yet it is also becoming increasingly aware of the costs, so much so that it may soon be forced to rethink the terms of its relationship with its headstrong ally.