Jeffrey Choi is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at ANU and an Endeavour Award Scholar. He previously served as an officer in the South Korean Navy.
North Korea's successful long-range rocket launch last December and its subsequent third nuclear test in February have fundamentally shaken the order and stability in Northeast Asia. North Korea's missile and nuclear technologies appear more advanced and sophisticated than previously thought and it is more common now to acknowledge North Korea as the world's ninth nuclear power.
Two decades of effort by the international community to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons appears to have ended in failure. This necessitates a rethink of the grand strategy for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, with China playing a more critical role than ever.
Traditionally, as North Korea's only strategic ally in the region, China appeared to have prioritised stability of the North Korean regime over sincerely joining the tedious denuclearisation efforts by the international community. Although in the past China consistently voted for post-nuclear test UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang, its will to actually enforce sanctions was often questioned by the international community.
Amid its intensified great power rivalry with the US, North Korea's strategic value as China's traditional alliance and buffer against the advancement of US interests in the Korean Peninsula still holds very strong. Likewise, China is deeply concerned about any possible internal unrest caused by collapse of the North Korean regime, as it shares a border of more than 1400km with the country.
However, as 'nuclear' North Korea has become a reality, China's traditional strategic posture toward it has recently shown signs of fundamental change. This, if maintained, will in the long-term lead to a reconfiguration of the regional order. China has hinted that it would not accept a fully nuclear North Korea, since nuclear weapons in the hands of its unpredictable neighbour are contrary to its national security interests. Likewise, China sees that a nuclear North Korea may pave the way for nuclearisation of South Korea and Japan, which is also clearly against its strategic interests.
This is why China not only voted for tougher UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang after its long-range rocket launch and third nuclear test, but has also demonstrated its willingness to actually enforce the sanctions this time. In a situation where Pyongyang relies on China for more than 70% of its external trade, China's tightened border controls and crack down on the trade in UN prohibited goods from North Korea will greatly impact not only the lives of ordinary North Koreans, but the regime itself.
Quasi-governmental newspapers such as the Global Times have openly challenged the strategic value of North Korea to China. Some academics in public institutions went even further to insist on abandoning North Korea for the sake of greater strategic interests. There were also protests among the Chinese public, denouncing the North Korean regime after its third nuclear test. All this may indicate that China would not tolerate the continued undermining by North Korea of a core strategic interest: the denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula.
Of course, recent attitude changes by China should not be misinterpreted as the abandonment of North Korea as an ally. Rather, it must be interpreted as a carefully crafted gesture by the new Chinese leadership to pressure North Korea into returning to the negotiating table. By clearly showing that China's alliance with North Korea is not a fixed goal, but a flexible means to achieve its strategic interests, China is indicating that its alliance with North Korean might be sacrificed to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
This change in China's strategic focus has significant implications for regional order in Northeast Asia. China may start to openly support unified Korea with South Korea's lead if it is a way to achieve penninsula denuclearization.
In support of a Chinese led push for the denuclearization of North Korea, the international community should assure China that any social turmoil that may arise will be addressed and well managed. This may include an assurance that the US forces in South Korea, a continuous concern for China, will not advance into North Korea without consent by the international community, including China. This may be a new way of denuclearizing North Korea and achieving peace and stability in Northeast Asia where international efforts centering on the Six Party Talks are apparently dead.
Phot by Flickr user Dayou_X.