China's unusually strong fury toward North Korea's nuclear test three years ago initially looked like a harbinger for China's coming policy shift on North Korea in a fundamental way. Many observers commented that China's patience on its Cold War ally was finally wearing thin. Some members of the academic and policy community confidently concluded that North Korea is no longer a strategic asset to China, but has become a liability. Since then, the notion "China will abandon North Korea" has been the mainstay of the popular narrative.
After all, the Cold War is over. China is not the same China the West knew as an adversary. There was also expectation that China, as an increasingly confident superpower, wouldn't tolerate the mischievous behavior by its smaller neighbor, especially under the strong and charismatic leadership of Xi Jinping, who is reportedly more conscious of China's global image and is more focused on China's own national interests.
However, in the wake of Kim Jong-un's nuclear test in January 2016, China articulated that it was not ready to "abandon" North Korea and such chances in the future would be slim either. Foreign Minister Wang Yi even declared that China's position will not be swayed by a specific North Korean event. Why so?
"Even after Pyongyang's latest nuclear and missile tests, North Korea is still one of China's important neighbors," said Liu Ming, director for the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "China wants to maintain good relations with surrounding countries. North Korea is particularly vital."
Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, described North Korea this way. "I personally think North Korea is a liability to China, with all the nuclear and missile tests," Jia told me. Yet he also added: "North Korea is a close neighbor (jin lin) of China. Even though China is joining the international community to assign sanctions, but China is also worried that North Korea might wage a war or stage a disturbance," insinuating that China recognizes North Korea as a liability, but it fears that a heavy-handed punishment might backfire, given North Korea's patent bellicose and unpredictable nature.
With that, Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, concluded: "China's policy on the Korean Peninsula has not changed." While prioritizing its stability, Jin said China tries to strike a balance between the two Koreas. "It is an ‘equidistance diplomacy,' meaning we want to maintain good relations with both Koreas."
The three scholars Liu, Jia and Jin are all highly esteemed academics in China who are regarded as representing the rational voice. While recognizing that there is yet no fundamental shift, they also share a view that China is also undergoing a gradual evolution in its North Korean policy.
The conventional and probably most-widely accepted view in this regard is that China's North Korean policy is changing from the so-called "traditional friendly" (chuantong youhao) relationship, which is based on the Cold War ethos, to a "normal" (zhengchang) state-to-state relationship, based on modern-day international norms.
When asked about what "normal" means, Jin of Renmin University, said: "It would likely mean that China wouldn't give North Korea ‘a special favor' as it did in the past. Special favors will be reduced." Maybe it would take some time for the world to fully notice it. The key variable here again is whether China concludes North Korea as a strategic asset or liability.
"This is not a black and white question. I don't think we can easily choose any definition," said Liu in Shanghai. For the 70 years, North Korea served as a buffer between China and the U.S. Whether that is really the case is debatable, but such psychology remains largely intact, especially among the aged Chinese.
"Well, that's reality." Liu said. "The U.S. and South Korea say China's policy on North Korea failed. But we couldn't find a better policy. For China, North Korea is an issue you have to live with, regardless of whether you like it or not. You have to keep a stable relationship with it, otherwise … the situation will get out of control."
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at Sejong Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org