China without North Korea

NOTTINGHAM – North Korea’s third nuclear test is a game changer not only for the United States and Japan, but also for the regime’s last ally, China. The official Chinese reaction to North Korea’s latest provocation was stern: China is “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test, and it is calling for the resumption of international talks. But China’s stance lacks meaningful bite, because its leaders fail to recognize that they no longer need to succumb to their unruly neighbor’s blackmail.

In carrying out the test, the North Koreans have once again compromised China’s national interests. The international community is again firmly focused on China’s relationship with its rogue ally, and expects that, as an emerging superpower seeking to reassure the world of its peaceful rise, China will play a constructive role. However limited China’s influence may be, the North Korean regime can sustain itself only with Chinese backing.

With North Korea’s latest nuclear test coming so quickly after its rocket launch in December, the United Nations has good reason to ask China, a permanent Security Council member, to take the diplomatic lead. It is simply not enough for China to call, as its official statement does, for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks with South Korea, China, the US, Japan, and Russia. That framework has been thoroughly discredited by North Korea’s repeated violation of past agreements.

China must warn North Korea that it will not be pressured into providing support even when Chinese national interests have been undermined. Indeed, China should make clear that, much as it would prefer North Korea to survive and prosper, it could afford to allow its erstwhile ally to implode.