On the surface, China’s North Korea policy seems relatively consistent. China is keen to demonstrate that it is cooperating with international efforts to rein in North Korea, including allowing the passage of various U.N. Security Council sanctions on the regime.
But China has also been unwilling to push the Kim regime as much as the United States wants, primarily for fear of provoking reckless behavior on the part of Kim Jong Un, as well as the loss of any influence China has left.
However, if one looks a bit deeper, China’s North Korea strategy is evolving in subtle and significant ways.
1. China is no longer wedded to the preservation of the Kim regime.
Over the past three years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been surprisingly vocal in support of Korean reunification in the long term—though through a gradual, incremental peace—even if it entails the demise of North Korea as a sovereign state. Polls suggest that Chinese public opinion generally supports moving away from North Korea.
2. Chinese interests in a Korea contingency have expanded beyond concerns about a refugee spillover to include nuclear security.
Chinese military capabilities have improved greatly over the past 10 years, and the missions the People's Liberation Army (PLA) may be involved in have expanded in tandem. Training, equipment, exercises and aspects of the reorganization suggest contingency plans are likely in place for a mission to secure North Korean nuclear weapons and fissile material.
Chinese leaders may intervene to seize North Korean nuclear facilities to prevent North Korean use or the U.S., Japan or South Korea from striking them, which could result in cross-border contamination.
3. China is unlikely to fight to protect the Kim regime, and its defense and political officials do not expect to be invited to intervene.
Most recognize that Chinese forces may even be opposed by North Korean forces but will at least have an advantage because Kim will orient his forces south to deal with U.S. and South Korean forces.
4. The PLA may move into North Korean territory to ensure a degree of control over the conflict and its outcome.
China will need to be involved in any contingency on the peninsula to ensure that Korea reunifies on terms favorable to Beijing. The last thing China wants is North Korean instability or an outcome that strengthens the U.S. role in the region.
However, Beijing is more likely to pressure Pyongyang and risk instability if it believes it stands to benefit regardless of how North Korea responds.
5. Explicit planning for contingencies on the Korean peninsula is still too sensitive for China.
However, the United States and China could begin coordination efforts indirectly, such as through civilian training or technical exchanges on nuclear issues, or through supporting China’s expanded involvement in international nuclear security exercises. U.S. experts and officials could also push to observe China’s national level nuclear emergency joint exercises, such as the Shendun series.
To learn more, please see the full brief here.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on Chinese military and security policy in the Asia Pacific and is writing a book on China’s approach to global leadership. She is also assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and serves in the United States Air Force Reserve as a political-military affairs strategist at Pacific Air Forces.