China’s Balancing Act

Blurb: China’s support for the most recent U.N. Resolution against North Korea may be hollow as Chinese fears over a DPRK regime collapse outweigh those of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Image courtesy of Prince Roy, © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Prince Roy, © 2007, some rights reserved.

The U.N.’s announcement of its newest Resolution, intended to tighten sanctions on an increasingly volatile Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) has sparked yet another round of discord between the pariah state and other powerful regional actors including China, South Korea, and the United States. The Resolution, a response to the DPRK’s December launch of a 200-pound surveillance satellite atop a ballistic missile, strengthens already existing sanctions on North Korea by increasing the number of black-listed organizations and individuals in the state, and warns of further consequences for future launchings. Perhaps most notable however, is the Resolution’s backing by the sequestered state’s solitary ally: China.

A long-time supplier of economic, energy, and food aid to the internationally shunned North Korea, China’s alliance with the isolated state functions as an important lifeline for the DPRK regime, which, if cut off, might hold serious consequences for its continued survival. As a result, Chinese reproach of its ally’s nuclear weapons program is considered crucial. According to one British official, “Chinese willingness to withhold [economic] benefits would be the only lever with much power over Pyongyang.”[1] However, while it is tempting to view China’s support for the most recent U.N. Resolution as an indication of Beijing’s waning tolerance for North Korea’s provocative nuclear-related behaviour, the reliability of such support should remain a matter of scrutiny.

A consideration of the limited weight of the newest U.N. Resolution makes clear that Chinese disapproval for the DPRK’s actions is more hypothetical than real. The Resolution itself adds only “four organizations and six individuals to an existing blacklist,” and calls for the mere resumption of the multilateral Six-Party Talks over the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program.[2] While support for the U.N. Resolution may be viewed as symbolic, it hardly commits China to taking solid action against its ally, and thus indicates no real change in the Chinese position on the DPRK’s nuclear program. If, for example, China is serious about responding to the DPRK’s actions, why has it yet to “cut off aid in response to [recent] North Korean actions”?[3] Further, considering that China has supported past U.N. Resolutions against North Korea’s nuclear efforts (in 2006 and 2009) without taking subsequent substantial action against the nuclear transgressor, it seems likely that Chinese backing of the most recent Resolution is relatively meaningless. 

But why is China so unwilling to play a serious part in the international effort curb the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program? According to analysts, Chinese officials have made clear in meetings with their American counterparts that they fear instability in North Korea more than they worry about the country advancing its longstanding nuclear and missile capabilities”[4] For China, the threat of regime collapse within the DPRK holds deeper and more immediate consequences than a developing nuclear weapons program. Cutting off aid to the DPRK could in fact facilitate such collapse.

A consideration of the ramifications of a sudden breakdown of the DPRK regime helps to clarify the Chinese position. In the months leading up to North Korea’s leadership change in 2011, a number of scholarly reports emerged detailing potential regime-collapse scenarios resulting from a failure of the new leadership (now under Kim Jong-Un) to consolidate power. While it is becoming increasingly clear that the DPRK regime will not collapse as a result of Kim Jong-Un’s inability to maintain power, the consequences discussed in these reports shed light on why China fears a collapse of the DPRK regime, and, further, why China is so reluctant to cut off aid to the impoverished and isolated country.

According to scholars, implications for a collapse of the North Korean regime include, “outbreak of starvation and disease in North Korea; mass refugee flows across borders; ‘loose’ nukes and other forms of WMD; and the potential for on-going insurgency and violence throughout the country.”[5] Many of these issues pose direct security threats to Beijing. For example, “a massive refugee flow . . . would add to the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees who already reside in China.”[6] Further, if civil war were to break out in North Korea, it would likely spill over the Chinese border, posing a myriad of security and immigration issues. The problem of loose nukes, especially in the context of a civil war, is worrisome as well.

Perhaps the most threatening consequence of a DPRK regime collapse for China resides in the likelihood of external intervention by the U.S. and South Korea. According to reports, any military force capable of stabilizing a North Korean regime collapse would require between 260,000-400,000 troops, the majority of which would likely consist of South Korean and American soldiers.[7] In this case, it seems probable South Korea would pursue unification with North Korea, the prospect of which has serious implications for Chinese national security.  Importantly, such unification would provide the U.S., a long-held South Korean ally, with direct and lasting access to the Chinese border. It seems likely that without North Korea and its 1.1 million troops serving as geographic and human buffers, Beijing will consider Korean and U.S. troops as serious regional threats.”[8]

Is it possible then, despite the risks posed by sustaining the existence of a largely isolated, unpredictable, and autocratic nuclear-armed neighbour, that a nuclear North Korea poses a lesser threat to China than no North Korea at all? If so, Chinese support for U.N. Resolutions that deliver sanctions to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, as well as participation in Six-Party Talks, is merely a means to maintain the regional status quo. By appearing to support international condemnation of the DPRK’s nuclear program while simultaneously maintaining the provision of economic, energy, and food aid to the isolated state, China assures the U.S. against the need for external intervention and at the same time prevents a collapse of the impoverished regime and any ensuing security threats.


Although China’s buttressing of the North East Asian status quo has worked thus far, the region’s continued stability is questionable. As North Korea becomes more blatantly provocative with its nuclear endeavours, for example, claiming its impending nuclear test is “targeted at the United States,”[9] China will be increasingly pressured to take decisive action, including choosing one side over the other. It seems then, China’s meticulous balancing act may be approaching serious upheaval.

[1] Sanger, David and Broad, William, 2013. “Nuclear Test Could Open Window on North Korea.” New York Times, 1/30/13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sanger, David and Sang-Hun, Chloe, 2013. “North Korea Issues Blunt New Threat to United States.” New York Times, 1/24/12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bennet, Bruce And Lind, Jennifer, 2011. “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Mission and Requirements.” The Asian Institute for Policy Studies. 36(2), p.90.

[6] Ibid, p. 114.

[7] Ibid, p. 110.

[8] Park, Sungtae, 2013. “If Korea Were to Unite…” The Diplomat, 1/31/12.

[9] Park, Ju-min and Yoo, Choonsik, 2012. “North Korea to Target U.S. with Nuclear Rocket Tests.” Reuters, 1/24/13.

One Reply to “China’s Balancing Act”

  1. Interesting how this article suggests comparison with a book I recently read on the oft examined role of instability between the two world wars and Germany’s internal instability. The book is “Vanguard of Nazism,” by G L White (1952.) I think Ruby Russell lined up the factors in the current situation in the far(and now not so far) East very objectively. Good work!

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