It's widely predicted that North Korea will soon conduct another nuclear test. Sino-North Korean relations now face a new challenge.
It's unlikely China would punish North Korea as harshly as countries like the US, Japan and South Korea would prefer, and the friendship between the two sides is not going to end. The West should understand this clearly. However, if North Korea insists on a third nuclear test despite attempts to dissuade it, it must pay a heavy price. The assistance it will be able to receive from China should be reduced. The Chinese government should make this clear beforehand to shatter any illusions Pyongyang may have.
Some Chinese scholars believe that China will face a diplomatic challenge if North Korea carries out a third nuclear test. They worry that Pyongyang will turn against China because of China's participation in some international sanctions against it. In the worst case scenario, the rupture that occurred in relations between China and the Soviet Union will be repeated. Such concerns are driven by a lack of confidence in China's national strength, and they exaggerate North Korea's diplomatic irrationality.
The nuclear issue complicates Sino-North Korean relations, adding strategic difficulties to China in Northeast Asia. China has many misgivings when handling relations with Pyongyang, but there is a general principle: China is never afraid of Pyongyang. Pyongyang's diplomacy is characterized with toughness. But if Pyongyang gets tough with China, China should strike back hard, even at the cost of deteriorating bilateral relations.
Some believe the US, Japan and South Korea are attempting to foment discord between China and North Korea. Such a trap may be real, but China shouldn't be taken hostage by North Korea's extreme actions in order to avoid such a trap.
Pyongyang is important to China, but not important enough to make China give up its diplomatic principles. China maintains that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is necessary and insists relevant parties solve problems through negotiations. China is willing to maintain the Sino-North Korean friendship, but Pyongyang should do the same. The two should have same concerns over the possibility the relationship might break down, which would be of no benefit to Pyongyang. North Korea would face an even worse situation, but China could find some ways to compensate for geopolitical losses.
Some worry Pyongyang would completely turn to the US if it fell out with China. Such concerns are unfounded. The political gap between Washington and Pyongyang is impassable. Even if the whole Korean Peninsula moved closer to the US, there would be no serious ramifications. With China's increasing strength, being close to the US doesn't equal being hostile to China.
We are not advocating giving up the Sino-North Korean friendship. Instead, we believe the strategic significance of a friendly relationship is special. But Pyongyang shouldn't misread China. China won't put its relations with Pyongyang above other strategic interests. China must not fear disputes with Pyongyang if it is to maintain the traditional bonds of friendship.