BRUSSELS — In another move to raise the stakes, the dictator of Pyongyang has just decided to restart his nuclear program. And who is going to stop him, now that his long-range rocket can hit parts of the American West Coast? At least in theory. During the recent test, it took him days to prepare the vehicle on its launch pad. During the takeoff there were once more problems with the liquid fuel system and the guidance configuration.

If this were for real, it would not have the least chance to survive a pre-emptive strike by America or Japan, which saw the launch as a dreamed opportunity to test some of their new military hardware and joint command facilities. North Korea might have its rocket, but it is still a decade away from the kind of nuclear deterrence that would frighten its rivals.

It is China that is most badly damaged by the fallout of North Korea’s nuclear nationalism. For years it has been preaching restraint and arguing that Kim Jong Il could be brought to other thoughts via silent diplomacy. It invested a lot in the six party talks and seized it as an opportunity for proving its role as a responsible regional broker.

That image is now severely undermined. North Korea’s contempt for requests to renounce the test and to revise the decision to kick out U.N. observers have led to another failure of China’s noninterference policy. It has strengthened the diplomatic position of Tokyo and Washington, and more painfully, it has highlighted how limited China’s actual leverage is.

China is tied to its autocratic neighbor through a panoply of interests. Since the Korean War, it considers North Korea as a buffer state, and up to today, it seeks to defend the status quo. The baseline is that China still has a 1961 defense treaty with its neighbor and that any intervention by third countries will force it to either respond or lose the confidence of other traditional allies in Asia.

To some extent, it is thus history that binds them together, but more important is the existence of a harmful security dilemma. Rivalry with other powers like the United States, Japan and Russia inhibits Beijing to effectively tackle nontraditional security threats for the long haul, because pressure once again might undermine its regional influence in the short term. A worst-case scenario would be a peaceful regime change that allows Japan and the U.S. to move in. Equally troublesome would be unification with South Korea, as this would again require Japanese support, and might bring about a more self-determined Korea with economic and political ambitions that could challenge China’s growing influence in Northeast Asia.

Profiting from the North Korea diplomatic isolation, China has also built up an impressive commercial empire.

In the last five years, China’s trade with North Korea has grown three-fold, dwarfing the commercial linkages of Russia, Japan, and even South Korea. China has bought itself into the mining sector. The province of Jilin is making preparations for new ports, roads and railways to penetrate the resource-rich heart of its neighbor.

It barters electricity for copper. North Korea is its cheapest supplier of coal and iron ore, and vice versa it charges 25 percent extra for its oil exports. North Korea is also an excellent low-end consumer market for provinces in China’s northeast. The tighter the international sanctions get, the more profitable North Korea becomes for China’s numerous traders.

Another reason for keeping close relations with Kim is that Beijing sees no alternative to him. For decades, China has sponsored Kim’s regime for various reasons, but now that his one-man show has turned out to be a nightmare, it lacks fallback options.

In the past few years, China has successfully diversified its contacts with military leaders and other apparatchiks, but this cannot make up for the connections with Kim. Continuing to back him means reduced diplomatic maneuverability, but weakening the dictatorship in Pyongyang and an eventual regime collapse would cause severe instability along the Chinese border. China already counts up to 50,000 North Korean refugees in the northeast. In case of a political crisis, this figure could easily become 500,000.

North Korea’s rocket launch and the many other provocations highlight China’s ailing neighborhood policy. China knows that it needs to stabilize its backyard, but it continues to support dictators and weak regimes alike. In a climate of uncertainty about each other’s future intentions, regional powers like China continue to carefully watch the balance of influence. At best Beijing can cautiously show its concern with Kim’s policies, to make sure that he successfully manages to transfer power to his heirs, and then to see whether his successors are willing to build their domestic legitimacy upon domestic development instead of nuclear muscle flexing.

While the Obama administration has rejected the creation of new spheres of influence, regional powers will more tenaciously try to defend their regional interests. The failure of the U.N. Security Council to pass a new resolution after the rocket test highlights the fact that power politics will prevail over pledges for effective multilateralism. After all, for emerging states like China, multilateralism is but the continuation realpolitik through other means. For the years to come, this context will continue to allow thuggish leaders to pursue thuggish strategies.

Jonathan Holslag is head of research at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. He is also a member of the EU-China Academic Network (ECAN). © 2009 OpinionAsia

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