Beijing is playing the role of powerbroker during high-profile international negotiations and gaining leverage that it can deploy on other issues.
Power Problems: China Wants to Control the North Korea Conundrum
All parties to the negotiations with North Korea are trying to chart a path forward after the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. Most of the post–summit analyses focus on denuclearization steps, corresponding sanctions relief, and potential symbolic moves toward peace. But the parties still have to grapple with the challenge of incorporating North Korea into a broader political and security order in Northeast Asia.
In pursuit of that goal, a foundational question remains unanswered: Is North Korea a strategic liability or an asset for China? Answering that question will be essential to forging an effective strategy for advancing talks with all the parties.
North Korea presents a strategic liability for China in four ways. First, Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior could spark war or chaos just over China’s border. Fear of that possibility was palpable during 2017 when Washington lobbed threats of “fire and fury” and North Korea tested missiles frequently. At the time, Chinese policymakers genuinely worried about instability in North Korea that could require China to send troops over the border to prevent a flood of refugees and to seize an influential stake over the country’s future. There was also the low-probability but high-consequence scenario that a war in North Korea could spiral into a great-power war with the United States and South Korea.