China has effectively subsidized and supported the North Korean state for the past 70 years as a buffer against a land invasion from South Korea. China supplies North Korea with fossil fuels and other essentials and protects it diplomatically.
But does this buffer-state strategy make sense in today's world? The threat is now from nuclear missiles and trade wars, not a land invasion. Though we cannot know what's being discussed or decided behind close doors, the high cost of subsidizing a rogue nuclear state for the now-irrelevant value of a physical buffer may finally be weighing on Chinese decision-makers.
Then there's the all-important matter of "face". The perception of status, influence and power--what's known as "face"--is the core concern in East-Asian societies. "Losing face" by being revealed as powerless and lacking influence is to be avoided at all costs.
Western analysts often under-estimate the importance of maintaining or recovering lost "face" in Asian decision-making.
Consider how much "face" China is losing in being unable to control its rogue client state, North Korea. China is quite keen on projecting itself as a rising global power, and the dominant power in Asia and the adjacent seas.
So how does it look when a supposed global power can't even control a client state on its own border? China's inability to influence, much less control, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and threats gives the lie to its claim of global power.
Even worse, China--the supposed hegemon of Asia--must stand by as the U.S. sails in to deal with China's rogue client state. In terms of "face," this drama is telegraphing that the global power is the U.S., not China, which has been reduced to bystander in the stand-off over North Korea's nuclear threats.
Imagine if the roles were reversed and China had to send its fleet to the Caribbean to deal with a rogue client state of America's, that America could not control or contain. The loss of face is immense.
It was no coincidence that America's 11-ton bunker-tunnel busting bomb was deployed in Afghanistan as tensions mount over North Korea's nuclear theats.The Chinese newspaper report excerpted above noted that the Chinese military knows the location of North Korea's nuclear facilities, but disabling those deeply buried facilities without resorting to nuclear weapons may be beyond China's military capabilities.
So China loses face again: not only can it not control North Korea's nuclear ambitions, it doesn't have the non-nuclear means to destroy them.
In the context of face being lost as China's inability to control or contain its client state is revealed to all, China has no choice but step in before the U.S. acts unilaterally. In terms of saving face, it would be better to force North Korean compliance before the risk of a nuclear exchange escalates, and China may be signaling North Korea that its patience has finally run out.