Why won't China rein in North Korea in the current nuclear crisis? The answer lies in Beijing's secret goal of getting U.S. troops off the peninsula.
The prevailing understanding on China is fundamentally flawed. The consensus is that China shares common interests with the U.S. and nations in the region in denuclearizing North Korea. Therefore, it ought to play an active and leading role in resolving the crisis, especially because Beijing seems to have the most leverage over North Korea.
Much to the disappointment of the U.S., however, China has excused itself from the "relevant parties." Beijing insists that this is really a matter exclusively between the United States and North Korea. Furthermore, China does not believe that the U.S.-North Korean dialogue ought to include the United Nations; Beijing has vociferously opposed efforts to bring in the world body to bear on the issue. The question is, why?
The key to understanding China's behavior is realizing that exclusively bilateral talks could produce what China secretly craves: the removal of the U.S. military presence from the Korean peninsula.
In a multilateral setting, the emphasis would be on North Korea's violation of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its threat to the region and the world. Thus, various multinational measures to disarm North Korea would be discussed. U.N. involvement would remove the onus on the U.S. to negotiate on its own.
However, if the situation were framed solely as a dispute between the U.S. and North Korea, the focus would be shifted to what North Korea is demanding in exchange for nuclear disarmament. North Korea, with its far-reaching missile capability, would then be perceived as a direct threat to U.S. security. Combined with South Korea's strong resistance to taking military action against the North, the U.S. could well be cornered into conceding to North Korean demands, namely, a nonaggression treaty and a military withdrawal from South Korea. China would then have achieved its short-term goal of removing U.S. troops from the peninsula.
Ejection of the U.S. military presence is an essential first step toward China's ultimate long-term goals: reunification with Taiwan and reassertion as the dominant regional power.
After a U.S. withdrawal, China would be likely to find two friendly Koreas on its southern border. Post-Cold War South Korea is no longer a hostile country but an important trading partner. And if a united Korea emerges, it would probably be amicable toward China.
Further, if Japan rearms and goes nuclear in reaction to the new circumstances on the Korean peninsula, the rationale for the U.S. military presence there may be diminished as well.
In this best-case scenario for China, with American forces removed from Korea and Japan, Far East geopolitics would enter a new era. China could reassert its historical status as the dominant regional power and eventually reabsorb Taiwan.
This crisis may well drive the U.S. off the Korean peninsula. With this in mind, why should China help the U.S. to maintain its military presence in South Korea by pressuring North Korea to give up nuclear weapons?
That China appears constrained by anxieties over the potential flood of starving refugees that would be created by North Korea's economic collapse only serves as a cover for China to prop up North Korea's bargaining position. China's sales of a key chemical ingredient for nuclear weapons development to North Korea, as recently as December, should be understood within this context. China wants North Korea to maintain its strong leverage in any bilateral talks with the U.S.
Only when viewed from this perspective are China's inaction and stubborn insistence on direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington comprehensible; indeed, it is a profound and brilliant strategy.