After North Korea's fourth nuclear detonation last week, the third on U.S. President Barack Obama's watch, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his frustration with China's unwillingness to rein in Pyongyang's reckless and dangerous provocations. As Kerry put it:
"China had a particular approach that it wanted to make, that we agreed and respected to give them space to implement that. Today in my conversation with the Chinese I made it very clear that has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual."
Kerry did not explain whether the "business as usual" reference applied only to relations between China and North Korea, or to the U.S.-China relationship as well. Beijing quickly made clear that it doesn't matter what the secretary meant: From China's perspective, nothing will change in either bilateral interaction.
The Communist Party of China's official and quasi-official media organs flatly rebuffed the suggestion that China bears any special burden to curb Kim Jong Un's bizarre regime and defiantly turned the charge back on the United States and the West. The official People's Daily said Washington had "inescapable responsibilities for the current tension in the peninsula."
An editorial in Global Times stated: "In no way will China bear the responsibilities that the U.S., South Korea and Japan should take. The hostilities between them and Pyongyang are actually the source of the nuclear problems. The China-North Korea relationship should not be dragged into antagonism."
An official statement from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was equally brazen: "The origin and crux of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has never been China. The key to solving the problem is not China."
Kerry's personal annoyance is understandable. A year ago he was in Beijing pleading with Chinese leaders to use their economic clout with Pyongyang to curb its nuclear program. "China has a unique and critical role that it can play. No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea's behavior," Kerry said then.
Though increasingly urgent with the passage of time, these U.S. remonstrations with China go back decades. As Richard Nixon declared in his 1994 memoir, "China is the only country that possesses the necessary leverage to rein in North Korea's ominous nuclear weapons program."
The Obama presidency is the fifth administration, from both parties, to deal unsuccessfully with the North Korea-China nuclear challenge. In 1991, with Beijing's urging, President George H.W. Bush unilaterally withdrew all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea to entice Pyongyang onto a non-nuclear path.
That overture failed to persuade the regime, as did all the multilateral negotiations and economic blandishments over the quarter-century that has followed. Pyongyang simply pocketed them and proceeded inexorably with its nuclear and missile programs - all with China's indulgence and complicity. (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress in 2012 that China has "clearly assisted" North Korea's missile program.)
Nor did sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council or unilaterally by the United States dissuade the Kim family dictatorship from moving ahead - especially since Beijing ensured that they were always delayed, watered down, or less than vigorously implemented. Meanwhile, the flow of food, fuel, and technical assistance from China - Beijing's fallback economic lifeline to North Korea - never faltered.
For years, Western governments and foreign policy experts assured us on a bipartisan basis that Beijing cared as much about a nuclear North Korea as the rest of the world does. Henry Kissinger asserted in 2004 that "eliminating North Korea's nuclear program is overwhelmingly in the Chinese interest. They don't want nuclear weapons on their borders."
It is finally being acknowledged that China views a Kim regime with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as less terrifying than the prospect of a unified, humane, democratic Korea. So the People's Republic refrains from seriously pressuring the Democratic People's Republic to abandon its nuclear program - indeed, China enables North Korea.
China itself has benefited greatly from the West's preoccupation with the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. The Kim dynasty's wildly unpredictable behavior has enabled Beijing to play the role of a supposedly responsible international partner - and in return to extract its own Western concessions on human rights, proliferation, trade, and other issues. Even now, the North Korea issue distracts Washington from confronting China over its own expansionist actions in the South China Sea.
Hopefully, Kerry's criticism of China's unhelpful role with North Korea signals an end to U.S. tolerance of what he called Beijing's "soft" approach toward North Korea. Beijing will stop doing business as usual with Pyongyang only when Washington stops doing business as usual with Beijing.