China may have voted for North Korea sanctions, but this means little for the countries’ relationship
The UN has recently imposed its severest sanctions yet on North Korea in the wake of its recent hydrogen bomb test. However, even while Russia and China both supported the latest round of sanctions, this will have negligible impact on North Korea’s overall utility to China, especially in light of the U.S.’s rebalance to Asia.
While Southeast Asia may indeed garner the lion’s share of current U.S.-China headlines due to China’s assertion of a South China Sea sphere of influence, it is Northeast Asia where China’s security concerns are much more multifaceted.
Northeast Asia’s power struggle
The region is home not just to U.S. military power, but also to that of its other great power rivals, Russia and Japan. However, while North Korea may have benefited from the Former Soviet Union’s patronage during the Cold War and been an unwilling participant in Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in WWII, it is in the context of U.S.-China relations that North Korea finds its greatest usefulness.
Simply put, North Korea’s geographic location enables it to keep the U.S.’s alliances and their attendant military infrastructure away from China’s border. While it’s been speculated that China is not especially fond of the new North Korean leadership, especially in the wake of its strategic weapons testing, any such personality conflicts will be overridden by hard geographic realities every time.
In fact, North Korea’s value to China has most likely only increased in the aftermath of the U.S.’s Asia rebalance and Japan’s slow, but steady march towards “normalization”. Lastly, it is critical to remember that North Korea also serves the same function with respect to Russia due to their mutual border.
Diplomacy over retribution
Repeated North Korean intransigence with respect to its weapons tests had actually raised China’s profile within the region. This is because as the host of the Six-Party Talks, China was initially perceived by the U.S. as having some influence over North Korea and could be expected to cajole it back to the negotiating table. As the resultant dangers from North Korea’s test multiplied, it had the initial effect of making China an even more important partner with respect to the U.S. and its security interests within the region.
However, because of the opaque nature of the decision-making process within both China and North Korea, it remains unclear to this day whether North Korea’s pattern of weapons tests, threats, and demands are part of a larger game planned in advance between the two states. Related to this, China is concerned with a possible North Korean collapse and the literal spillover effect it would have in terms of refugees flooding its border. However, China is much more concerned that a possible North Korean collapse would bring U.S. troops to its very doorstep.
Because of this, the positions of China, Russia, and South Korea have traditionally been less hawkish towards North Korea than those of their Six-Party Talks partners, the U.S. and Japan.
Sanctions effect overblown
While economics does indeed play a prominent role in a state’s geopolitical calculations, oftentimes it is not the overall deciding factor. No matter how economically crippling sanctions may be, they will rarely have an impact on an issue that a state considers fundamental to its national security interests.
While it may be argued, for example, that extended sanctions eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table, this is a very simplistic argument, to be generous. A deal was eventually reached with Iran because the U.S. calculated that enlisting Iran’s help in the fight against ISIS and once again having its energy reserves available to Europe, undermining Russia’s position, is in the ultimate U.S. interest. Sanctions will also not make Russia forget that the status of Ukraine is in its ultimate national security interests.
Likewise, sanctions will not make China forget that the stability of North Korea and the value it provides are in China’s ultimate national security interest.