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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

China's failure to rein in North Korea undermines its quest for global leadership

Despite all that has happened in recent months, Mr Trump’s basic charge that China owns North Korea’s reckless and dangerous escalation remains valid.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talks with officials at the ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on March 11, 2016. KCNA / Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talks with officials at the ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on March 11, 2016. KCNA / Reuters

China’s rivalry with America historically plays out in the South China Sea but events on the Korean peninsula hold the key to Beijing's quest for the upper hand in Asia.

Donald Trump took a simple line on Washington’s problems with Pyongyang when he became US president in January.

With the Kim regime playing in China’s backyard, it was up to Beijing to rein it in. If China took a responsible stance and enforced some rules, the threat would go away.

Almost every week since there has been a development that defied Mr Trump’s contention. Pyongyang finds provocation at every turn and ramps up the rhetoric accordingly. Spurred by war games in South Korea on Monday, it warned its neighbour to “stop senseless threats or be reduced to ashes”.

Logic would suggest all sides would do the utmost to prevent further escalation. President Xi Jinping is, however, constrained for reasons of history and his immediate politics. The Chinese army undertook immense sacrifices to maintain the Cold War divide between the Koreas in the 1950s. Considerations surrounding this October’s Communist Party shake-up mean the Chinese leader does not plan to embolden hardline rivals or engage in cross-border distractions with the Kim regime.

There is no doubt that Mr Xi is disturbed and worried by Pyongyang's nuclear test and the preceding missile launches that pitched the region into this crisis. Max Baucus, a former US ambassador in Beijing, revealed last week that Mr Xi had used a “derogatory expression” in referring to the 33-year old leader in Pyongyang. Anyone with any experience of dealing with Chinese leaders knows this must be a remarkably candid exchange.

To the frustration of President Trump and others, this does not mean China is ready to rein in its satrap. More than 90 per cent of Pyongyang’s trade is with China and its crude oil supply could be turned off abruptly. The dependence is so stark Beijing cannot fully distance itself from the ever more rapid progress in unveiling sophisticated designs for nuclear warheads. At the weekend the regime detonated a device many times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

America has few good military options when it comes to neutralising the threat from Pyongyang. James Mattis, the US defence secretary, has threatened a “massive military response” while adding that America did not seek total annihilation of the country. The constraint is that North Korea has conventional weapons as well as the ultimate nuclear deterrent. Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, conceded Pyongyang could “vaporise” Seoul with artillery fire if it was attacked.

The damage to the world economy from a conflict that spanned the two Koreas and probably Japan, as well as dragging in the US and China, remains incalculable.

An intractable situation that locks Washington into a cycle of threats and empty warnings is boon to China in the near-term. The set-to provides useful distraction from China’s priorities and challenges. As it has sought Chinese cooperation, Washington cannot roll out its America First assault on Chinese exports.

For its part, Beijing cares more about its spreading presence around the trade lanes of the south China sea.

It is steadily building up a naval and missile capability there that could one day deny the US navy access to key strategic territory.

Despite all that has happened in recent months, Mr Trump’s basic charge that China owns North Korea’s reckless and dangerous escalation remains valid.

Presuming that Armageddon is delayed, the crisis will eventually reach an inflection point. If a serious conflagration over Korea cannot be ruled out, Chinese claims to global leadership will be undermined by its failure to act against its neighbour.

Instead of Washington bogged down defending Japan and South Korea, the Chinese will face an intractable dilemma of their own. North Korea is a moral stain on the globe. Its people are trapped in servitude to the regime. Famine and hardship kills untold millions. The system of gulags and repression is the most brutal on the face of the earth.

Kim Jong-un is the third generation leader of the North Korean regime and survival to a fourth generation remains his paramount goal.

Ultimately Beijing may find it interests are better served by engineering a shift within North Korea away from the ruthless first family of Pyongyang.