The recent North Korean testing of a “hydrogen bomb” and advanced, long-range missiles capable of hitting the United States has led to a predictable response. The U.S. and U.N. have condemned the tests as violations of North Korea’s international obligations, the U.S. and R.O.K. have engaged in obligatory shows of military might to remind Kim that if war were to break out, the full might of the Combined Forces Command would be directed against his regime, and China has scolded its unreliable ally. There have been all sorts of recommendations regarding how to respond, but the central problem is that nothing will get done without China, and China is unwilling and unable to do much.
Indeed, it is somewhat miraculous that there is as much policy consensus as there is between the U.S. and China regarding North Korea. Both the U.S. and China are frustrated by the erratic nature of the Kim regime, and they are also both wary of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. In fact, there have even been a few times when China has joined in sanctions programs against North Korea, albeit usually only to a very limited degree. The central problem is simply that within IR, client states have a lot more leverage over their patrons than many realize. As such, China only possesses limited control over their troublesome neighbor.
This strange dynamic between client and patron states was illustrated during the Vietnam War, a conflict where the U.S. was essentially propping up a dictatorship in South Vietnam in order to contain the spread of communism. Because the U.S. needed South Vietnam to survive and win, it had very little leverage; the south knew that it held the trump card. Richard Betts has written extensively about this, arguing that if patron states push too hard for reform within their client state, they risk collapsing the entire regime and thus potentially losing an ally. Moreover, the more a patron needs its client to survive, the more it is forced to backstop potentially counterproductive behavior. Both of these dynamics exist in the Chinese-North Korean relationship: China can’t risk pushing Kim too hard and possibly triggering a collapse of the North Korean government, and they also can’t abandon Kim because he is the only thing standing between China and South Korea – a U.S. military ally.
In particular, China is likely concerned that a North Korean collapse would lead to massive refugee flows into China, overwhelming the northeastern Chinese provincial authorities and generating unrest and instability in China itself. There is also 6.39 billion dollars worth of trade between China and North Korea, so losing that would be a substantial loss for the Chinese economy. Finally, there is the question of what would come after a Kim regime. As troublesome as Kim has been for Beijing, a power vacuum on the Korean peninsula would likely be filled by the South and, by extension, the Americans. This is intolerable for China, a country who still remembers the Imperial Japanese Army invading through Korea and Manchuria. Indeed, the Korean Peninsula is to China what the Netherlands are to Britain, a vital strategic region that cannot fall into the hands of another great power under any circumstance. This Chinese strategic imperative was demonstrated as recently as the Korean War when China intervened to prevent the U.N. forces from conquering the North.
Ultimately, absent some drastic shift in the situation on the peninsula, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will be able to secure sufficient Chinese cooperation to meaningfully challenge the Kim regime. The incentive structure as it stands now simply doesn’t permit an easy solution.