In U.S. President Donald Trump’s calculus, a choice between Chinese cooperation or American military action loom large as part of any solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. But one often unspoken aspect of this outlook has been Beijing’s rarely mentioned mutual defense pact with Pyongyang — a treaty that would oblige China to defend North Korea in event of an attack.
The little-discussed pact, inked in 1961, legally requires Beijing to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event the North is attacked. Such assistance could simply mean providing better defensive weapons, but it could also include something dramatic, like deploying troops and conducting military actions against attacking countries.
For both countries, this alliance — sealed in blood by the Korean War — remains relevant and personal.
But much has changed, in terms of geopolitical realities, in the nearly 56 years since the treaty was concluded. China, now the world’s No. 2 economy, seeks prestige on the global stage and a larger say in world affairs. North Korea, meanwhile, is a nuclear-armed totalitarian regime, whose atomic weapons program and alleged human rights abuses have made the isolated nation a pariah state in the eyes of many.
For China, perhaps no other foreign policy issue has proved a greater challenge in the 21st century than North Korea. But would it respond to U.S. military action taken against North Korea?
Experts say the answer is as complicated as the pair’s troubled relationship.
“There is no love lost in the China-North Korean relationship,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said. “The relationship is stressed.”
In the North, leader Kim Jong Un has scoffed at the vassal state relationship his country has with China, its sole patron. While Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, enjoyed robust ties with Beijing, the young leader has distanced himself. He has executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had pushed for bolstered links with its neighbor, while also thumbing his nose at the leadership in Beijing. In the five-plus years since he assumed power, Kim has yet to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Despite repeated calls by China for the country to halt its nuclear weapons program, Kim has also overseen a huge uptick in missile and atomic tests that have threatened Beijing’s most cherished objective in the region: stability.
In an effort to protect this, Beijing may be willing to sacrifice its pact with Pyongyang, at least to an extent, experts say.
“While the mutual defense treaty obligates China to come to North Korea’s aid in times of war, no one believes that China will fulfill this obligation,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “The Chinese government has not mentioned this treaty for a long time.”
Zhang believes there are two explanations why Beijing would be unlikely to live up to the pact’s obligations: a fear of being ensnared in a devastatingly costly conflict and concerns of emboldening the North by giving it a carte blanche.
Instead, Beijing has chosen to take an approach that avoids highlighting the defense treaty while attempting to foster ties in other areas.
“Keeping mum on what they will actually do in a war scenario is a typical way for allies to discourage other members of an alliance from taking risky decisions,” said Zhang.
Still, he added, the first explanation also suggests that Beijing might turn a blind eye to a limited U.S. attack, one that does not seek to overthrow the Kim regime — and in turn put American troops on China’s doorstep.
But while a limited-war scenario may not trigger Chinese intervention, a full-scale war — one that would pit a superior U.S. military against North Korean forces — would be a different story.
China has long helped to prop up North Korea by providing it with aid and diplomatic cover as a means of maintaining a buffer zone between it and U.S.-allied South Korea. The founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, even had an aphorism for the North: “When the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” a reference to North Korea providing protection to an otherwise exposed China.
“China may worry that the U.S.-South Korea alliance will take over the entire Korean Peninsula,” Zhang said. In the event of a larger conflagration, it would intervene, he added, noting that this would not necessarily involve fighting, but possibly an attempt to maintain a kind of buffer zone near the Chinese border.
Experts say that with each provocation by the North, debate has grown in China over Pyongyang’s shifting role — “strategic asset” or a “strategic liability” — and whether the time has come for Beijing to cut its erstwhile ally loose.
“There is an intense debate in China over this question,” said Glaser. “There are deeply entrenched groups that view North Korea as a strategic asset.”
These groups argue that the U.S. is the greater threat and that the North helps to distract Washington’s attention from issues that involve Chinese core interests, such as the South China Sea, she noted.
But Glaser said “an increasingly vocal group of international scholars sees North Korea as a strategic liability. Xi Jinping has not yet taken a clear position, I’ve been told.”