Why China wouldn’t want to encourage a North Korea proxy war

Anne Applebaum is a very smart commentator, and she pens an op-ed on North Korea that is more thought-provoking than most. She admits that no one knows what Pyongyang is thinking, which I like, because it is true. And she acknowledges that this even goes for her hypothesis, which is that North Korea is testing missiles provocatively because China wants it to.

Despite the risks, though, there are good reasons for the Chinese to prod Kim Jong Il to keep those missiles coming. By permitting North Korea to rattle its sabers, the Chinese can monitor President Obama’s reaction to a military threat — without having to deploy a threat themselves. They can see how serious the new American administration is about controlling the spread of nuclear weapons — without having to risk sanctions or international condemnation of their own nuclear industry. They can distract and disturb the new administration — without harming Chinese American economic relations, which are crucial to their own regime’s stability. And if the game goes badly, they can call it off altogether. North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven’t done so yet, there must be a reason.

Railroad at China-North Korea borderI’m sympathetic to this argument, which calculates Chinese interests to be regional hegemony, especially of the naval variety, but it’s a little too much Cold War realpolitik for me. The idea of China waging a proxy war against the United States through North Korea just doesn’t seem to pass muster. China simply has too many interests in common with the U.S., including, significantly, many having to do with North Korea and North Korean proliferation.  Plus, how “serious” could China expect the United States to react to this supposed “spread of nuclear weapons?”  I don’t think China wants the United States to bomb North Korea, and starting a proxy war that you don’t want is even worse than starting one that you do want.

And, despite the weight of Chinese influence, calling North Korea a “puppet state” seems off the mark. The old red axis has faded, and the historic China-North Korea alliance is now more awkward for Beijing than not. China could indeed “end this farce tomorrow;” but I don’t think they know what they’d get if they did, so operating even within the more predictable confines of the unpredictable North Korea that it knows is preferable to dealing with an unpredictability for which China is not prepared.

(image of a railroad at the China-North Korea border, from flickr user Rivard under a Creative Commons license)