Once again, North Korea flouted international law and disturbed the world with its launch of a rocket that could be used to carry a nuclear warhead. Once again, the United States and the international community denounced the action and mobilized the U.N. Security Council to issue yet another rhetorical condemnation.
And once again, the nation that could unilaterally affect Pyongyang’s behavior has refused to do so. As Richard Nixon stated in his 1994 memoir, “China is the only country that possesses the necessary leverage to rein in North Korea’s ominous nuclear weapons program.”
That same year, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s partner in opening relations with China, wrote: “Eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program is overwhelmingly in the Chinese interest. They don’t want nuclear weapons on their borders.” For years, American officials and experts from both parties have repeated that formulation, instructing China on its best interest regarding North Korea. Beijing has seen things differently and consistently ignored their advice.
To explain China’s passivity in the face of the growing North Korean threat, they offer a variety of often-conflicting rationales: (a) China long felt it was a U.S. problem that Washington should resolve with Pyongyang, (b) China fears North Korea’s collapse and a flood of refugees, (c) China fears a pressured Pyongyang might attack South Korea again, (d) China was waiting for Kim Il-Sung to die, (e) China was waiting for Kim Jong-Il to die, (f) China wants to prevent a unified, non-Communist Korean Peninsula and sees a modest North Korean nuclear capability as serving that end.
There is another, unspoken, explanation for Chinese inaction: Pyongyang’s provocations have been a draining foreign policy distraction for Washington and that has served China's strategic interests. But diplomats cannot publicly acknowledge that China and North Korea see the United States as a common adversary.
Beijing has skillfully played the strategic dilemma card as the adult power striving to rein in its wayward junior partner. In return, the West has treated China as a responsible stakeholder and good-faith negotiating partner. That role has also earned Beijing useful leverage on other issues: trade, currency manipulation, Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, proliferation, and support for other rogue or tyrannical regimes. Washington and the West have accorded Beijing great deference in those areas because “we need China’s help on North Korea.”
Yet, Beijing does more than acquiesce to Pyongyang’s reckless conduct—it protects and enables it, on the Security Council and in bilateral and multilateral negotiations. When North Korea first announced its intended rocket launch and plans to detonate a third nuclear device, China’s response was tepid: "We call on parties concerned to stay calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula."
But Beijing did see fit to condemn U.S. and Japanese missile defense precautions as a “pretext” to contain China. After the launch, China said it had “noticed” it as well as “the reaction of relevant parties." It urged those parties to “remain calm and restrained—don't do anything to damage peninsular and regional peace and stability.”
This is the same moral equivalence China employed when the North sank a South Korean destroyer, killing 47 sailors, and shelled an island, causing three more deaths. (Equating aggressor and victim, and avoiding moral or legal judgment, is also Beijing’s way of dismissing brutal regime crackdowns in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran, Libya, and Syria.)
Now we have confirmation from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that China has done more than sit idly by as Pyongyang violates Security Council resolutions through its nuclear and missile projects. He told the House Armed Services Committee last week that China has “clearly” provided technological “assistance” to North Korea’s missile program.
In the current state of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, it is seen as geopolitically incorrect to chastise China for its complicity in North Korea’s dangerous and unlawful behavior. But after China joined Russia in vetoing Security Council resolutions against Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice called it “disgusting” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “despicable.”
When American presidents meet with Chinese counterparts, they like to say that U.S.-China relations have reached the point where disagreements can be discussed honestly and openly. Washington ought to be able to tell China that its support for North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile actions is irresponsible, ill-befitting a government that aspires to a global leadership role, and that relations with the United States will suffer.
Then again, Kissinger has often said China feels no loyalty to an international order “it had no role in creating.” If that continues to be Beijing’s operating principle, the world is in for an even rougher ride than what North Korea offers.