USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group. Photo: US Navy

As the potential for another nuclear test looms in North Korea, and President Trump continues to blast the Kim regime with weaponized Twitter bravado, pressure on Beijing is mounting. China is well aware, as the only grownup in this equation, that it is up to them to prevent catastrophe on their northeastern border.

While this escalation of tensions echoes countless moments of provocation and brinksmanship in the history of a divided Korea, it doesn’t just feel different this time – it really is. There has been an unsettling shift in the calculus of all parties involved.

No, China doesn’t have North Korea’s back

On Saturday, Chinese state-run news outlet Global Times published an opinion piece outlining China’s limited options for preventing war on the Korean peninsula. Shockingly, the Chinese communist party mouthpiece, known for its harsh criticism of the US, argued that China: 1) should drastically limit oil supply to their northeastern ally if they conduct another nuclear test, and 2) should NOT respond militarily in the event that the US carries out a surgical strike on North Korean nuclear facilities.

Before we explore what has brought us to this moment, let us pause and reflect on that point. Officially, Beijing is an ally of North Korea. A Chinese state media outlet, known for its hawkish stance toward US foreign policy, argues that China should not intervene on North Korea’s behalf should the US carry out a military strike on the Kim regime. That should be mind-blowing, but if we look at what has happened to the China-North Korea relationship over the past several years, it becomes clear why China is willing to align itself with the US and South Korea on the North Korea issue.

China’s hopes dashed

It is safe to say that Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s youthful leader Kim Jong-un got off on the wrong foot when they took power, one shortly after the other. Relations between the two countries were amicable with former president Hu Jintao at the helm of China, while Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was still in charge of North Korea. After the former supreme leader’s death in 2011, however, things went south, figuratively and literally.

Former Chinese president Hu Jintao (right) shares a glass of wine with former North Korean leader, and father of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il. Photo: Korea Central News Agency

Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power was a moment of great uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula, but it also represented an opportunity for positive change. Some saw Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who had helped mentor the young leader during his transition to power, as the key to closer relations with Beijing and economic reform in China’s image. Jang had been involved in the establishment of a joint economic zone set up with China and was seen as a figure with close ties to Beijing.

Those hopes were dashed quickly. Following a North Korean rocket launch in April 2012, Beijing uncharacteristically – for the time – backed a UN Security Council statement condemning the launch, which many speculate China had warned against through private channels. Soon after, China memorably ignored Kim Jong-un’s request to visit Beijing during the handover of power to Xi Jinping that same year.

And then came a dramatic blow to Beijing’s hopes of progress for the desolate kingdom of Kim.

The last man seen as a glimmer of hope for North Korean economic reform, the aforementioned uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was executed by his nephew. His alleged crimes included committing “irregularities” related to the joint economic zone set up with China and taking control of “major economic fields of the country,” according to North Korean state media.

People watch television news showing Jang Song-thaek in court before his execution on December 12, 2013. Photo: AFP

Pivot to South Korea

Perhaps the most significant moment in Beijing’s turn away from Pyongyang came when Xi Jinping visited Seoul in the summer of 2014. The move, which broke a long-standing tradition of Chinese leaders visiting their ally to the north first, marked a seismic shift in Northeast Asian regional politics. It garnered significant positive media attention in China, and fed a narrative, which first grew out of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s earlier visit to Beijing, that a new friendship had bloomed between the two countries.

China was determined to diminish US influence in the region and the visit sparked concern in Washington and Tokyo that Beijing was succeeding. The love affair between Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye didn’t last, as we saw most recently with the row over South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. But many in Beijing still see stronger relations with South Korea, at the expense of relations with the north, as being in China’s strategic interest.

Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a smile during his state visit to Seoul. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Korea.net

The volatile compound of Kim and Trump

Three years later, with a new US president in power, China is in a sticky situation. The current administration in Washington is less predictable than any in recent memory. That is even true for analysts in Washington – just imagine the head scratching that is going on in Beijing every time Trump posts a new thought to Twitter.

The young leader in North Korea is as boxed in strategically as he ever was. The nuclear program has been presented to the North Korean public as the crowning achievement of the Kim regime. How could he abandon part of his claim to legitimacy as a successful leader?

China does not want the US to conduct a surgical strike on North Korean nuclear facilities. In fact, by all accounts, no one at the Pentagon would risk that either. Washington and Beijing are in agreement that further advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program needs to stop. China, if the Global Times is any reflection of the mood in Beijing, is also willing to go further than it ever has before by limiting oil supplies to North Korea should they conduct another nuclear test.

Chinese leaders will hope to stop short of threatening the ultimate collapse of the Kim regime. The question is – how far is too far?

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