This CFR article, China and the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, describes China’s progressive attempts to distance itself from DPRK’s regime. Actions include:
- Strong rhetoric from Xi Jingping against nuclear tests
- Backing of a new UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s third nuclear test in Feb 2012
- A “slowdown in high-level contacts with Kim Jong-un” in late 2012
- A lack of “party-to-party interaction” between the North Korean Vice Minister and China’s foreign ministry counterpart in June 2013
- High level contact with RoK, including when the new president Park Geun-hye visited Beijing last week (June 2013)
The article also suggests that:
…North Korea has emerged near the top of the U.S.-China agenda not so much because of a convergence of interests, but because it is the least difficult of an array of regional security challenges facing the United States and China.
Sino-American relations, in the face of other formidable challenges, currently including disputes over the South China Sea, cyberwarfare, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, have always heavily emphasised agreeable issues to maintain a strategic dialogue and prevent diplomatic divergence, which no one would like to see.
Take Taiwan form example. Both sides have essentially agreed to disagree on Taiwan’s status unless they were forced, in a provoked crisis, to stick to their respective positions. Crises like the three Taiwan Straits Crises are managed, however, in part because both parties normally maintain pledges of strategic cooperation that would prevent relations from going completely sour, at least in private.
When Taiwan was first discussed in 1972, both parties essentially tabled Taiwan’s status to be resolved in the future; the Shanghai Communique (1972) didn’t reach any substantive conclusion, both agreed that China and the US should not act to become regional “hegemonies”. They were united in their opposition towards the USSR, and this acted as an anchor for diplomatic coordination despite huge cultural, economic, and philosophical differences. Currently, the issue of the DPRK seems to be one such uniting issue.
Deng Xiaoping did the same thing with the Diaoyu Islands in the 80s. He suggested that “future generations” be left to resolve the conflict with Japan, partly because China at the time was no match for Japan’s military strength. But that same policy makes sense even now: when the US said that it would back Japan if the conflict came to a head and when so many commercial interests are being threatened, it makes sense for China to emphasise economic cooperation and play down territorial disputes – for the sake of diplomatic stability and continued communication.
With the DPRK, China may not only be trying to rein in Kim Jongun’s seemingly trigger-happy regime, but also taking the opportunity to emphasise strategic cooperation with the US. It may even be using its actions as evidence of good faith to its relationship with the US, which has for years asked China to use its close ties with the DPRK to prevent nuclear proliferation.