There’s an interesting thought piece by Daniel Nidess at the Wall Street Journal considering why China has tolerated North Korea’s nuclear weapons development:
Two competing narratives have come to dominate the discussion. In the first, China has no fondness for Kim Jong Un’s regime and is aligned with the rest of the world in viewing it as a threat to peace and stability. But Beijing is constrained. It has less influence with Pyongyang than the world imagines and fears creating a humanitarian catastrophe on the Chinese border. In short, the Chinese share the world’s concerns and would love to do more, but their hands are tied.
In the competing narrative, China has no real interest in pressuring North Korea too forcefully, since it serves as a useful buffer between the Chinese border and U.S. troops in South Korea. Realpolitik dictates that, despite real concern over Pyongyang’s instability and unpredictability, a somewhat erratic ally is immeasurably better than staring at your enemies across the Yalu River.
Most of the commentary on China’s efforts falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two narratives. But there’s a third possibility—that China has been deliberately allowing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to escalate, if not outright stoking them. More than two decades of U.S.-led diplomacy, sanctions and threats have all failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and resulted in only one real casualty: American credibility. The inability of the world’s only superpower to entice, coerce or force a small, impoverished nation to fall into line has undoubtedly been observed by Asian countries weighing whether to align with American or Chinese spheres of influence.
First, an observation. China’s role in North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program is clearly a little more than passive observer. It’s practically impossible for North Korea to have obtained the materials it has needed for its development program without their passing through Chinese sovereign territory. Consequently, the alternatives really are that the Chinese authorities think that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development furthers China’s interests, the Chinese calculated, probably incorrectly, that North Korean nuclear weapons just aren’t that important, or that accepting North Korea’s development program was the best of a number of bad alternatives. I think it’s probably a combination.
Generally speaking, I think that you get better results explaining things on the basis of dumb luck than on the basis of genius. The genius theory supports the notion that it’s all a plot and, frankly, I don’t believe it. The dumb luck theory suggests that it’s all been a gigantic miscalculation or that China doesn’t really have a good alternative. Sounds about right to me.