U.S. officials have long agreed with Mao Zedong’s famous formulation about relations between China and North Korea: the two countries are like “lips and teeth.” Pyongyang depends heavily on Beijing for energy, food, and most of its meager trade with the outside world, and so successive U.S. administrations have tried to enlist the Chinese in their attempts to denuclearize North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump has bought into this logic, alternately pleading for Chinese help and threatening action if China does not do more. In the same vein, policymakers have assumed that if North Korea collapsed or became embroiled in a war with the United States, China would try to support its cherished client from afar, and potentially even deploy troops along the border to prevent a refugee crisis from spilling over into China.
But this thinking is dangerously out of date. Over the last two decades, Chinese relations with North Korea have deteriorated drastically behind the scenes, as China has tired of North Korea’s insolent behavior and reassessed its own interests on the peninsula. Today, China is no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival. In the event of a conflict or the regime’s collapse, Chinese forces would intervene to a degree not previously expected—not to protect Beijing’s supposed ally but to secure its own interests.
In the current cycle of provocation and escalation, understanding where China really stands on North Korea is not some academic exercise. Last July, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States’ West Coast. And in September, it exploded a hydrogen bomb that was 17 times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. U.S. rhetoric, meanwhile, has inflamed the situation. Trump has mocked the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man,” threatened that North Korea “won’t be around much longer,” and announced that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded.” To back up
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