The United States has some leverage in making a deal with Beijing on hastening the end of the North Korean regime, notes Roderick MacFarquhar, a research professor of history and political science at Harvard:
- First, a unilateral strike by the United States would be likely to drag China into the struggle anyway. Preparation and joint action would allow Beijing to protect its interests. With Mr. Kim out of the picture, Beijing would be free from the constant worry that the unpredictable Mr. Kim could set off a wider war in East Asia.
- Second, Beijing could negotiate the removal from South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a missile-defense system known as Thaad. Washington deployed it last year to protect South Korea against North Korean missiles, but Beijing fears it could also inhibit its own weapons systems.
- Third, China could insist that United States military personnel leave a newly united Korean Peninsula, and that the united Korea be permanently neutral, like Austria after the withdrawal of Soviet and Western troops in 1955. American troops will not leave South Korea as long as Mr. Kim remains in power.
“But even if Mr. Xi were open to a Chinese role in taking down the North Korean state — and on balance, autocrats are not risk-takers — there are forces at home tying his hands for the immediate future,” MacFarquhar writes for the NY Times. “The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th Congress this fall, and Mr. Xi is expected to consolidate his leadership by installing his closest supporters in the Politburo and its Standing Committee. Action against North Korea before then would be politically too risky for him.”
The Chinese insist that they don’t have as much influence as the US thinks they do, says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. The Chinese would say that the way to begin is to start building trust with the North Koreans by making some kind of initial concession.
China’s leaders need to ask themselves how much longer they intend to provide unconditional support to the North Korean regime – which is completely dependent on Chinese supplies – rather than putting pressure on it to cease its provocations, adds former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. To avoid a military conflict, China and the US will need to agree on a joint approach and move toward reviving the Six-Party Talks with North Korea.
China’s bigger fear is the collapse of the Kim regime, which would send a wave of unwanted refugees across its border and could create a new and unwanted neighbor: a reunified Korean state allied with the US, argues Michael Mandelbaum, Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies:
While the Chinese may have good reasons to prefer the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, continuing to indulge the North Korean leadership’s nuclear ambitions is a risky option. China could find itself surrounded by unfriendly nuclear-armed states, or with a nasty war on its border, or perhaps both.