Unbalanced Alliances

Why China Hasn’t Reined in North Korea

A South Korean security guard stands guard on an empty road which leads to the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the South's CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine), just south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, February 11, 2016. Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

Diplomacy on North Korea has assumed all the comic predictability of a Samuel Beckett play. Leader Kim Jong Un tests a nuclear bomb; the world clucks in alarm. The United Nations lurches into action and hosts talks about having talks. Nothing substantive happens. And in Washington, policymakers and pundits remain mystified as to why China does not do more to rein in North Korea.

The reason is simple: Beijing still needs Pyongyang­—all the more so given Washington’s pivot to Asia. Perhaps more than any other capital, Washington should understand that the relationship between a great power and client state usually gives the upper hand to the latter. A great power can threaten, bribe, beg, and try to reason, but if it is convinced that the survival of a client state is crucial to its own national security, there is little it can do to change the client state’s behavior. The weaker state is usually all too aware of this fact. The United States lived through this when it supported former Republic of China leader Chiang Kai-shek as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Similarly, Washington has little love for Saudi Arabia’s toxic foreign policy or human rights records, but it sees the kingdom as a cornerstone of Middle Eastern stability.

China operates in much the same way with its client states. Pakistani militants attack Chinese workers in Baluchistan and traffic guns to Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, but since Pakistan provides China with a crucial access point to the Indian Ocean, Beijing can do little but lecture and cajole. Myanmar may be responsible for violent clashes and drug smuggling along the Chinese border, but, especially before the recent reform, commercial and geopolitical considerations pushed China to live with the junta. And in North Korea’s case, China has had little choice but to ignore Pyongyang’s excesses for decades.  

North Korea’s geostrategic significance is burnt deep into China’s official mind. To be sure, there are

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