China and North Korea this month marked the 55th anniversary of the signing of a defense treaty ― the "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance."
The 1961 treaty was commonly referred to in China as the "China-North Korea military alliance treaty" (zhongchao junshi tongmeng xieyi), especially due to Section II that obligates China militarily to defend North Korea and vice versa.
The defense treaty with North Korea is China's only formal military alliance treaty signed with another country that has not been rescinded since the founding of the People's Republic.
When asked about it during a regular press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang tersely said: "China and the DPRK (North Korea) have sent messages of congratulations to each other to commemorate this day." Oddly, he didn't elaborate.
Most observers also noticed that China was not sending any high-level delegation to North Korea this time. Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary, China dispatched Zhang Dejiang, who is now China's No. 3 leader.
The contrast was seen to reflect China's displeasure with North Korea's wayward nuclear development, and corroborate the widespread judgment by pundits that the couple were going through a low moment in their relationship.
As the recent rift between the two has deepened and as China's patience with North Korea has been wearing thin due to the latter's various regionally destabilizing acts, a flood of international policy comments and media reports supported the concept that China no longer sees North Korea as a "strategic asset." Instead, the North has become a "strategic liability." Recently, China also joined the United Nations to implement "fully" sanctions against North Korea for its fourth nuclear test.
The term strategic "asset" or "liability" is often used by alliance theorists. Alliance theorists research why alliances form or dissolve. For example, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt asserted that Washington's close ties to Israel have become "a strategic liability" as the United States has become the target of terrorists due to their alliance.
A normative form of alliance involves signing a mutual defense treaty. While each partner agrees, explicitly or implicitly, to defend the other, all parties retain substantial discretion in the implementation of the agreement. In November 2010, for instance, North Korea shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, raising inter-Korean tension to the brink of war. According to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's memoir, then Chinese leader Hu Jintao's emissary, Dai Bingguo, flew to Pyongyang and sat down face-to-face with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Dai warned Kim: "If North Korea would first attack South Korea and, as a result, there were full-scale arms clashes, China wouldn't aid North Korea."
Some observers interpreted this as Beijing considering a decoupling of their mutual defense treaty with North Korea they signed in 1961, effectively severing their alliance.
President Lee, at that time, also took Dai's words as a significant sign. Lee observed in the memoir: "China's attitude toward North Korea is changing."
Since then, North Korea's periodic and often raucous provocative acts in the region have been increasingly described as a liability for China.
Scholars broadly agree that national interest is the key determining factor for a country to decide whether a particular nation is an asset or not. If judged as a liability, then, theoretically speaking, the nation can be "severed" from the alliance relationship.
The question today is whether North Korea's "usefulness" to China has run out. Any policy and scholarly examination of contemporary China-North Korea relations should begin its inquiry here.
The simple answer is no.
Going back to Dai's warning to Kim, in fact, Dai was not diverting from the spirit of the defense treaty. The treaty's Section II stipulates that the aid will be provided only when either nation "is invaded by" a third country. The treaty does not obligate China to aid North Korea when the latter invades South Korea or any other country.
To be blunt, Dai was reminding Kim to "play safe" and not to raise inter-Korean tension to the brink of war. It would be therefore a stretch of logic to use Dai's words to argue that China was "siding" with South Korea or warning North Korea about "severing" the defense treaty.
Hours after the "uneventful" Chinese press briefing on the treaty anniversary, a true event happened when Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong-un. As he was personally addressing the North Korean leader as "Comrade Kim," Xi said: "The China-North Korea friendly ties are a mutually precious treasure. It is the steadfast policy of the Chinese (Communist) party and the government to continue to deepen and develop the ties."
In a separate congratulatory message to Xi, Kim said he would develop the North Korea-China friendly ties "to meet the demands of the time."
That certainly sounded like a coded word. Perhaps that explains something about the unusually firm handshakes and warm back-cuddling in front of the international media between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Laos this week.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.