For a brief while, South Korean diplomats were in a rather celebratory mood: it looked like China, for a change, had joined the ROK and the US in their efforts to subject North Korea to the toughest sanctions ever. Indeed, in early March the Chinese representative in the UN Security Council voted for Resolution 2270 which introduced such measures, and for a while the united front looked like a reality.
Frankly, for yours truly, it was a surprise: the harsh position Beijing had seemingly committed itself to was unprecedented, and Chinas switch happened quite suddenly. However, now it seems that this change was merely a short-term fluctuation.
There are many signs of a warming of relations between China and North Korea. In early June, Ri Su-yong, the former North Korean foreign minister who currently is the Korean Workers Party vice-chairman responsible for foreign relations, visited Beijing. It is the first time since 2013 that a North Korean official of such high rank has appeared in the Chinese capital. Among other things, Ri was granted an audience with President Xi Jinping. It lasted merely 20 minutes and therefore was, first and foremost, a formality, but it still had much symbolic meaning. It is equally important that the Chinese media devoted much space to describing the visit.
Simultaneously, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman expressed dissatisfaction with the new US policy initiative - unilateral sanctions, targeting banks that deal with North Korea. On the other hand, the US authorities subpoenaed Huawei, a massive Chinese telecommunication company, for its alleged deals with North Korea. There is also a growing body of evidence that China is not being as strict with sanctions enforcement as many had hoped for.
There is nothing surprising about all this. Like it or not, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, Chinese interests are seriously different from those of the United States.
It is true that China does not want North Korea to be nuclear. Being a legally recognized nuclear country, China does not want an erosion of its uniquely privileged status, so it takes nuclear proliferation seriously. It also has some reason to worry about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists: there are some terrorist groups and movements that target China. Last but not least, China is aware that North Koreas nuclear and missile tests create an environment that justifies an enlarged US military presence in Northeast Asia - and Beijing does not want its main geopolitical rival hanging around in what the Chinese leaders see as their neighborhood.
Nonetheless, China needs stability in Korea more than it needs North Koreas denuclearization, and thus it is remarkably careful when it comes to pressing North Korea really hard. There is indeed a risk that excessive pressure will lead to a grave political crisis in Pyongyang and perhaps cause regime collapse - and this is not what China wants. Chinese policy planners do not want to deal with the refugees flow, the smuggling of conventional and (God forbid!) nuclear weapons, and general chaos near its major urban centers that might result if there is a North Korean domestic crisis.
It also has some reservations about what is the most likely eventual outcome of such a crisis - the emergence of a unified Korean state dominated by Seoul and hence democratic, nationalist and close to the US
China can live with a unified Korea, but it has no reason to encourage such a turn of events. The Chinese attitude to the North Korean issue to a large extent depends on the state of relations between Beijing and Washington. When such relations go sour, China feels more interest in maintaining a buffer state (no matter how repulsive it is in many regards), and is more willing to invest money to prevent North Korea from going belly up.
Recent news indicates that relations between China and the US are going south. The conflict in the South China Sea is a big issue, and President Obama, while visiting Vietnam, lifted the embargo on sales of weapons to the country which sees China as its greatest potential threat (with good reason, admittedly). No matter how people in Hanoi and Washington (or Manila) see it, from the Chinese point of view this looks rather unfriendly, so one should expect that their willingness to cooperate with the US on North Korean issues, while still quite weak, will become even weaker - and this is exactly what we see now.
To be honest, these developments should not have come as a surprise. The so-called lsquo;international community is largely a fiction: it consists of sovereign states, each with their own interests, and only seldom willing to subordinate these interests to greater concerns. So it is businesses as usual, as has been the case for the last 100,000 years or so.