What role does North Korea play in Chinese strategy?

What role does North Korea play in Chinese strategy?

A week after the summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un ended, the steady drumbeat of analysis goes on. Much of the discussion has focused on what North Korea gained from the meeting. The widely-accepted conclusion is recognition of the North as a nuclear state, eased sanctions, the propaganda coup that came from sitting face-to-face with the US president, and most importantly, the freezing of war games and even a possible reduction in American troop numbers in South Korea. In return, the US received a vague North Korean commitment to denuclearization.

Two games of chess played at once

The summit has been likened to a move in two separate chess games – one played on a small board between the US and North Korea, and another played between the US and China on a larger board. Chinese President Xi Jinping will certainly view events regarding North Korea in the context of China’s objectives on the large chess board. It is worth considering what those objectives are, and how North Korea inadvertently helps China achieve them.

Beijing’s overarching objective, in a nutshell, is to become the dominant power in Asia by slowly and systematically eroding US maritime primacy, particularly within the East and South China Seas (and especially the Strait of Taiwan). Whilst it is undertaking a complex and multi-faceted strategy to achieve this, Beijing’s signature tactic is to deploy military assets to artificial islands and threaten the US Navy’s ability to operate near China’s coast. It is also attempting to erode US alliances through pointed economic and psychological pressure.

The value of North Korea for China

At first glance, the hermit kingdom seems to have little strategic benefit for Beijing beyond acting as a buffer state. Kim Jong Un’s brutal, nuclear-armed regime justifies the presence of American forces in South Korea and Japan. There is also the risk of regime collapse, which would bring thousands of refugees into China and force Beijing to choose between occupying the North at great cost or accepting a unified Korea aligned with the US.

The regime, however, benefits China in other ways. First, it occupies significant White House and State Department bandwidth in an administration already suffering from job instability and a ‘dizzying’ brain drain. Admiral Harry Harris has only just become the ambassador to South Korea, there is no assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and no nominated Korea expert in either the White House or State Department. When South Korea’s foreign minister went to Washington, she met Ivanka Trump to talk about North Korea. Ms. Trump is a fashion designer.

It is true that Secretary of Defense James Mattis remains focused on the large chess board. Yet he is a lonely voice in an administration that is distracted by trade disputes and summits with North Korea. Despite Mattis’ best efforts, including a revamped national security policy, neither Trump nor his supporters seem willing to pay attention to artificial islands somewhere off the Chinese coast given the overwhelming focus on North Korea.

Second, China’s economic influence over North Korea is a significant bargaining chip in negotiations with the US over other issues. The country accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade volume. China’s adherence to the international sanctions regime played a significant role in bringing Kim to the table in Singapore five months before US midterm elections, at a time when Trump wants to be seen signing a better agreement than the one Obama reached with Iran. Trump needs Xi on his side to effectively negotiate with Kim Jong Un, especially if he wants to sign a formal peace treaty (China is a signatory to the original armistice). Xi, however, will be tempted to withdraw his support if the US presses China too hard in other areas (by conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, for example).

This is not to say that North Korea is a chess piece China can move at will. Pyongyang has made moves towards strategic independence by openly disagreeing with Beijing. Yet the summit would not have happened without China’s blessing, and it evidently aids China’s broader strategic goals. In short, the summit was one move in a chess game that, if current trends continue, risks ending with indisputable Chinese control over maritime East Asia.

About Author

Ewen Levick

Ewen Levick is an Australian security and strategic policy analyst based in Sydney. He holds a BA from the University of Sydney, Honours from the University of New South Wales, and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He also writes for CABLE magazine, and previously served in the Australian Army.