Peter Huessy is a Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
Although most observers tend to treat them as separate phenomena, there is an intimate connection between North Korea's recent nuclear and long-range missile tests and China's growing push to control the vast oil and gas resources in the South China Sea and the associated sea lanes through which trillions of dollars in commerce travel.
Conventional wisdom has it that China has both a territorial and political stake in moderating neighboring North Korea's growing belligerence and military capability. China, however, seems to be doing exactly the opposite; rather than using its geopolitical weight to moderate North Korean behavior, China appears quietly to be encouraging it.
Chinese leaders have copped to as much. Following North Korea's December 2012 and February 2013 tests, and on the heels of Pyongyang's threats to attack Japan, South Korea and the United States, the State Department turned to Beijing to keep things under control. In a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in April, Chinese officials complained that U.S. military deployments in the region were unduly provocative. They further asserted that, unless the U.S. pulled back its missile deployments and reduced its naval and troop deployments in Asia, they simply could not control North Korea.
China's stance has everything to do with its growing ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. As authors Sarah Raine and Christian Le Miere conclude in their new book "Regional Disorder," China "is almost singlehandedly driving" the growing conflict with Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia over the energy and mineral resources of this huge area. China now claims all of the islands therein, and 80 percent of the maritime area.
China's play is more than merely economic, however. In addition to securing oil and gas resources for its energy-starved economy, it also would control the South China Sea, and the strategic waterway known as the Malacca Strait, through which flows 70 percent of the crude oil used by the economies of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. But for China to acquire this coveted hegemony, U.S. military capabilities in the region will need to be severely cut.
At first blush, North Korea's provocative behavior would appear to be at cross purposes with this goal. Following the North's recent tests, for example, the United States flew B-52 nuclear bombers thousands of miles to the Korean Peninsula. It also forward deployed some missile defense and radar systems to Guam, signaling solidarity with Japan and the Republic of Korea. The White House simultaneously committed to deploying an additional fourteen ground-based interceptors to defend the U.S. homeland against long-range missile threats.
But Washington is also seeking accommodation. The U.S. government has agreed in principle to a new round of the long-running Six-Party Talks, and it has opened the door to providing humanitarian assistance to the North (as did Seoul).
This reveals a new status quo taking shape in the region. Thanks to its increasingly capable strategic arsenal, North Korea has growing power to hold regional targets at risk. It likewise has begun to pose a direct threat to the United States; according to a leaked study from the Defense Intelligence Agency, North Korea now has the capability to make a small nuclear warhead to fit onto a ballistic missile and launch the payload some thousands of miles toward Hawaii, Alaska, Guam and perhaps even the west coast of the United States.
This state of affairs benefits not only North Korea, but China as well. To the extent that Pyongyang's growing belligerence helps shape and constrain U.S. policy in the region, Beijing is likely to find greater freedom of action to pursue its own strategic objectives.
The real question, then, shouldn't be whether or not Beijing can help rein in Pyongyang. Rather, it is what China might gain by not doing so.