Beijing’s perceived leniency toward the hostile Kim Jong-Un regime has long irritated the United States, especially in the wake of North Korea‘s unannounced nuclear weapons test early this year. What might not be so apparent to the Chinese leadership is the negative impact on China’s standing in Asia. In certain corners of the world, Beijing’s dedication to its ally and refusal to cave under US pressure would win China praise and increased diplomatic leverage. Because China’s aggression is seen as a major threat to neighboring countries and North Korea has long been a danger to everyone, China’s resistance “to protect” Asia from North Korea undermines Chinese influence.
Although North Korea has been a perpetual threat since the late 1940’s, the threat is currently seen in terms of China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the South and East China Sea. Where the United States is attempting to address a Chinese military buildup that could become a threat and defend its regional allies from Chinese dominance, North Korea is a threat, because it will attack if the calculations of Kim Jong-Un conclude victory is certain. What this means is the North will assuredly attack South Korea if China and the US become entangled in a regional conflict. North Korea is, therefore, likely seeking any opportunity to create such a distraction.
The Ukraine Crisis deflated rising Russian influence in the West, because Russia’s pursuit of its own interests at the expense of Ukrainian interests transformed Russia from an emerging diplomatic global influence into a security threat to its European neighbors. China’s use of its military might to forcefully pursue its interests in both the South and East China Sea helped do the same for China. Consequently, the failure of China in the eyes of Asians to adequately address the threat of North Korea reinforces the belief that China is solely interested in protecting its own interests at the expense of others.
Because the US protects its interests and considers the interests of weaker nations, China’s support of the North helps bolster US influence in Asia at the expense of Chinese influence.
Under the self-serving leadership of Kim Jong-Un’s father, North Korea’s rogue behavior was predictable and easily satiated, but Kim Jong-Un is a man who seeks to prove himself as a great leader and demonstrate the greatness of his country, which means war is far more likely. Clearly, the current irrational nature of the North represents a threat to China, so Beijing must be careful how it confronts Kim Jong-Un or risk becoming a target, but a failure to adequately confront North Korea undermines Chinese regional influence and allows the North Korean threat to grow.
Furthermore, the increasingly desperate and hostile situation under Kim Jong-Un has lead to attacks on Chinese citizens and territory by North Korean forces. Beijing’s failure to forcefully confront Pyongyang undermines the authority of the Community Party while stoking civil discontent. China’s willingness to violate the sovereignty of nations like Thailand, which China’s hypocritically condemns foreign interference, to kidnap Chinese dissidents demonstrates Beijing’s insecurities. Government insecurities tend to manifest themselves in self-sabotaging policies. Clearly, China is engaging in a range of policies that drive anti-Chinese sentiments across the region.
The Chinese government has long tried to engage in carefully-considered, constructive policies. While increased Chinese aggression may well have been planned long ago to further China’s interests, the current leadership and environment make such aggression self-sabotaging. Faced with growing civil discontent, economic uncertainty, a need to adapt to a changing international environment, and an untested leadership with a self-serving capitalist mindset, China is headed toward armed conflict. It must reverse course. This starts by fully cooperating with the International Community on North Korea instead of trying to punish and appease the Kim Jong-Un regime at the same time.
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