North Korea: from buffer state to China’s nightmare neighbor
The BRICS summit in Xiamen, a port city on China’s southeast coast, was supposed to be another important moment for China to present itself as a global power and its president, Xi Jinping, as a great world leader.
But on Sunday, just hours before Xi delivered a keynote speech at the annual gathering of the five emerging powers – Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa – North Korea detonated its sixth nuclear test, the biggest yet.
The hydrogen-bomb test embarrassingly overshadowed the carefully choreographed summit. Worryingly for China, this was not the first time – and very likely not the last – its junior communist neighbor had deliberately chosen a key moment to humiliate its leadership.
In March, when China’s top political figures met at the annual National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament, Pyongyang test-fired a quartet of ballistic missiles.
A month later, just a day before Xi’s first encounter with his US counterpart, Donald Trump, in Florida, the Kim Jong-un regime launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile.
In May, when China’s core leadership was about to inaugurate a huge international summit for Xi’s signature trillion-dollar One Belt One Road initiative, the young dictator in Pyongyang ordered another ballistic-missile test.
However, of these confluences, North Korea’s nuclear test last Sunday was probably the most humiliating for China and Xi.
The ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold its 19th National Congress next month, and the BRICS summit was the last major international event held in China before this five-yearly meeting, which is seen as the occasion for Xi to cement his sweeping power for the next five years and beyond. As such, the BRICS meeting was meant to be choreographed to project China’s global influence and Xi’s diplomatic prowess.
In fact, in the run-up to the secretive conclave that begins on October 18, the highly censored country’s officials and state media have portrayed Xi as a great international statesman, overtly hailing both his diplomatic thoughts and China’s foreign policy achievements under his leadership.
Yet for all the praises about China’s and Xi’s diplomatic accomplishments over the past five years, Beijing has spectacularly failed to handle its closest and increasingly unpredictable and aggressive neighbor.
In one of his tweets about Sunday’s nuclear test, Trump wrote that North Korea “has become a great threat and embarrassment to China”.
Though some of his public statements are wrong and reckless, Trump is right in these remarks. With its recent provocative and dangerous missile and nuclear tests, the Kim regime has become not only a huge embarrassment to Beijing but also a serious security threat to China.
The tremors caused by Pyongyang’s latest underground test were so great that they rocked some Chinese cities bordering North Korea. Some people in the small city of Yanji, about 20 kilometers from the border, reported that they had fled their homes in underwear fearing a massive earthquake.
In an editorial following the nuclear test, the Global Times, a semi-official Chinese newspaper, said that while facing “a complicated situation” posed by North Korea, “China needs a sober mind and must minimize the risks Chinese society has to bear”. It added that the Chinese “need to make clear to Pyongyang through various channels that its nuclear tests can never contaminate China’s northeastern provinces”.
Such caution is necessary and wise. But while it is unclear whether the latest test, about 10 times as powerful as previous detonations, caused any leakage of nuclear material, there is no guarantee that the reclusive and aggressive regime’s future tests, which are very likely, will not generate leaks. Should a North Korean nuclear accident happen, it could spew radiation across the border, which could spell an environmental and economic catastrophe in China’s northern provinces.
Most important, judging by its recent provocative antics, which were aimed at not only the US, South Korea and Japan but also Beijing, North Korea will be a major obstacle on China’s path to regional supremacy.
As a rising power, China’s ultimate ambition is to replace the US as the dominant power in Asia. With its newfound nuclear capabilities, North Korea may no longer want to be China’s junior partner or client state. As the second country (after China itself) in East Asia to possess nuclear weapons, the outcast country can even challenge and threaten its giant neighbor.
What’s more, the North’s latest missile and nuclear tests have prompted South Korea finally to agree to full installation of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a US anti-missile shield that Beijing has vehemently opposed. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have also agreed on more defense measures.
China can only overtake the US to lead or dominate Asia if the world’s biggest economy and military withdraws from this strategically and economically important region. But Pyongyang’s provocations and threats are leading to the intensification of America’s military presence in the area.
Indeed, as the Global Times, an offshoot of CPC mouthpiece People’s Daily, has previously and repeatedly warned, North Korea’s behavior is greatly jeopardizing China’s national interests and geo-strategic ambitions.
For nearly 70 years, Beijing has protected and nourished the dictatorial and hereditary Kim regime in Pyongyang because it saw its junior communist neighbor as a crucial buffer against the US and its Asian democratic allies.
Yet for all the huge costs, including colossal human sacrifices, China paid to defend and sustain the Kim empire, instead of serving as a submissive client state and a bulwark against US encroachment, North Korea is now a troubling neighbor and a key reason for an increased US military presence in its backyard.
In many aspects, North Korea is now a nightmare for the Chinese leadership.