BEIJING (AP) – China’s foreign minister recently likened the US and North Korea to two speeding trains hurtling toward each other, an analogy that would seem to place China in the role of helpless bystander. And indeed, while tensions have risen, Beijing has been frustrated by its declining influence over the Korean Peninsula.
China “has a grandstand seat but no control,” said University of Virginia China scholar Brantly Womack.
The US is piling the pressure on Beijing to use its clout with North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programmes. China is the North’s most important trading partner and ally, but Pyongyang has ignored Beijing’s calls for a suspension of those programmes and its requests for high-level bilateral talks. China’s relations with South Korea, meanwhile, have plummeted over Beijing’s vociferous objections to the deployment of a sophisticated anti-missile shield.
“China’s approach to the peninsula is under the same strains that it’s been under before. The difference is that, this time, the Americans appear to be applying more overt, real pressure,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
A slew of recent missile launches and North Korea’s expected test of a sixth nuclear device have heightened concerns that the country is drawing closer to being capable of striking the US with a nuclear weapon — something sure to bring the crisis to a head.
Also complicating matters: The unpredictability of President Donald Trump, who earlier this month tweeted that the US welcomed China’s help in resolving the crisis, then added, “If not, we will solve the problem without them!”
Uncertainties also reside in South Korea’s election next month to replace disgraced former President Park Geun-hye; her successor is likely to be more conciliatory toward the North.
Meanwhile, China continues to insist that it won’t stand idly by while Seoul deploys the missile system, known as THAAD, driving home its point by halting package tours to the South and retaliating against a supermarket chain and other South Korean business interests within China.
While THAAD appears to be a done deal, China is playing a long game of reminding South Korea that, as a smaller and weaker nation, it needs to subordinate its security interests to those of China, said Cheng.
“South Korea has been put on notice that future defence efforts will likely also incur costs,” Cheng said.
Such criticisms have been reinforced by state media, with the Communist Party newspaper Global Times writing Wednesday that South Korea was also responsible for “fanning the flames” of tensions on the Korean Peninsula by deploying THAAD and failing to encourage Washington to enter into talks.
Beijing is also dealing with divided public opinion domestically. Younger Chinese with only a passing knowledge of the 1950-53 Korean War, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops died fighting alongside their North Korean allies, are increasingly cynical about the traditional friendship between the two countries.
Criticisms of North Korea that were once quickly scrubbed from the Internet are now being allowed to circulate, including a scathing speech by historian Shen Zhihua in which he accused Pyongyang of directly working against China’s interests.
Analysts say critics may even include Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is said to be deeply frustrated with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s intransigence since taking power in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il.
In the years since, Xi and Kim have never met. Liu Yunshan, a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, is the last important Chinese official to visit North Korea. He attended a military parade and mass rally marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea in October 2015, in what appears to have been a one-off attempt to get relations back on track.