With the US growing closer to India under the Modi government and North Korea seeking stronger ties with Russia, the Chinese government must be increasingly anxious as the world around them changes. Both India and North Korea have served as buffer states against US influence thanks to their rocky relationships with Washington.
In turn, this has helped the emerging global power that is China build its own expanding sphere of influence. An Asia uniting against China and/or neighboring countries seeking stronger alliances with governments from outside of the region undermine China’s ability to pursue its own interests without balancing those needs and wants with those of less powerful neighbors.
Clearly, the rest of Asia and the West have a strong interest in limiting China’s ability to abuse its power, but there is a potential benefit for China as well. Conflicting with the likes of Japan and Vietnam over the last couple of years, China has earned a reputation as somewhat of a bully and this has given the US an opening to reassert its influence in Asia.
While India and China can stand to have a healthier relationship, attempts by the Chinese to subjugate India are eventually going to result in a major conflict. North Korea is, however, a different story.
The highly isolated and defensive North Korean government is often compelled to act in highly provocative ways due to its sense of insecurity. North Korea cannot even feed its own People without outside help. No matter how delusional the Communist government and the People are, this perpetual state of hunger and overreliance on outside help is a true source of tension and stress.
Since the so-called “Arduous March,” which included mass famine in the 1990’s, North Korea has used its development of nuclear weapons to threaten the world into feeding their People when it should have pursued the development of its economy in order to feed its People.
Under the Kim Jong-Un regime, there seems to be a shift toward addressing North Korea’s overreliance on allies like China by building ties with countries like Russia, which includes leasing Russian land to feed the North’s population. Although the United States must continue to play its “bad cop” role with the North until it shifts its highly aggressive policies toward neighboring countries, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons, China can both support US efforts to corral the North’s rogue behavior when it is in China’s interests to do so and help mitigate North Korea’s hostile view of the world by helping it become less reliant.
In a day and age when wars are fought in the air and in the seas often from hundreds of miles, there is little need for North Korea to exist as a buffer state, especially for a large country like China that is capacity of migrating inward to defend against external attacks. It is important to remember Russia survived two World Wars by contracting in size until the enemy was weakened and Russian forces could recapture lost territory. This tactic and the notion of buffer states might be part of an older military mindset that has less significant in modern warfare and the modern world, but the value of a buffer state is far less than China’s greatest defense, i.e. its size.
Furthermore, the Ukraine Crisis also offers China a few very important lessons. Like China and North Korea, Russia had long enjoyed great influence over Ukraine. When Ukrainians decided their government was not serving their interests, they recognized Russia was largely to blame and decided to grow closer to Europe. In Russia’s attempts to preserve Ukraine as a buffer state, the Putin government managed to spark internal conflict that has torn the country apart and united the world against Russia.
China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States would like to see US troops withdraw from a united Korean Peninsula, but this will only happen when North Korea is no longer a threat to South Korea and this will only happen when North Korea starts to modernize.
With this is in mind, it is important to recognize the Chinese government has long sought to prevent North Korea from destabilizing. In handling North Korea’s provocative use of nuclear weapons tests, for example, China went so far as to calculate how much it could slow the flow of food and fuel into North Korea before doing serious damage.
The lesson from Putin’s plunders is that the drive to hold onto a buffer state in order to feel secure can actually make China less secure. Unlike Ukraine, the North has nuclear weapons and the temperament to use them if threatened. Consequently, it is in China’s interests to help North Korea become a far more functional state by allowing it to become less dependent.
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