The importance of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th party congress to the future of Xi Jinping’s leadership and the direction of China has paralyzed policy debates on many issues, including North Korea. The paralysis has persisted despite the Donald Trump administration’s efforts to wheedle greater Chinese cooperation to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs before they can strike the U.S. mainland.
But even if the configuration of Chinese power for the next five years has stabilized, this does not mean that the geopolitical, economic and domestic political factors paralyzing Chinese willingness to cooperate with the United States on North Korea will suddenly disappear. Rather, the contradictions influencing these three influences on Chinese policy formation will likely intensify.
First, China’s geopolitical aspirations will constrain cooperation with the United States on policy toward North Korea. China’s suspicions of U.S. intentions toward North Korea under Trump have surely not been assuaged by his calls for cooperation, even while Chinese fears of U.S.-North Korea military confrontation have gone up. Stability on the Korean peninsula trumps denuclearization as China’s top objective despite China’s grudging willingness to squeeze North Korea.
Even if the United States takes unilateral measures toward Chinese suppliers of North Korea in order to force them to choose between Washington and Pyongyang, China is likely to squeeze but not cut off North Korea’s access to the umbilical supply chain that keeps Kim Jong-un afloat.
Moreover, the more Trump pressures Xi on China, the more the North Korea issue becomes enmeshed in a broader struggle for hegemony in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s growing threat saps American strength and generates strains in America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea, which constrain China’s growing desire to dominate Asia. But the failure of the U.S.-led alliance framework would unleash daunting new challenges to security on China’s periphery, including the prospect that Japan, South Korea and possibly Taiwan might go nuclear both to even the playing field with a nuclear North Korea and as a hedge against both Chinese regional dominance and the risk of U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Second, China’s economic interests on the Korean peninsula keep hope alive in China’s northeastern provinces that coastal supply routes currently blocked by North Korea will gradually open up. On the border, Chinese money has already poured into North Korea through infrastructure, tourism, gambling, and joint manufacturing projects that involve North Korean labor on both sides of the border. Much of this exchange is not reflected in official statistics, but goes a long way toward answering how backdoor cross-border trade between China and North Korea has kept prices inside North Korea stable in the face of sanctions to date. China’s northeastern border provinces would welcome a vibrant North Korean economic neighbor, especially one with which China maintains a monopoly in trade.
Even if Beijing decides to support international efforts to impose complete economic isolation on North Korea, there will always be local suppliers willing to take the risks and receive the premiums necessary to ensure that North Korea’s leadership receives the essentials. And if a humanitarian crisis breaks out, China will be the first responder, as it was during the North Korean famine in the late 1990s.
Third, Xi himself arguably may be more sensitive to the crosswinds of Chinese public opinion as he forges his approach to North Korea, but his primary objective remains to burnish a reputation for strong leadership. On the one hand, Chinese public opinion toward North Korea continues to sour, and there is no love lost in Chinese internet commentary on “Kim Fatty the Third,” even despite efforts by China’s internet police to block such references from China’s internet. In academic circles, Chinese elites recognize North Korea more as a strategic liability than a strategic asset and are more willing to support economic pressure on North Korea.
But North Korea’s ideological and historical value as a fellow communist country will prevent Xi from sacrificing the North Korean buffer, for fear that the absence of North Korea as a foil would turn public criticisms inward and challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy. The worry that stripping away of North Korea would invite scrutiny of Xi’s own leadership may indeed be the biggest factor that paralyzes China’s willingness to confront North Korea, despite the growing threat Kim’s leadership direction poses to China’s own interests.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.