The results of a crisis created by Kim Jong Un will not be cheering
Optimists about American relations with China should consider the following scenario. At some point in early 2021, perhaps as President Joe Biden is sworn into office, hand on Bible, North Korea sees an incentive in testing a potent new weapon. In a worst case, that may mean launching one of the monstrous intercontinental ballistic missiles (icbms) that it unveiled at a parade in Pyongyang in October. Each may be able to carry enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm anti-missile defence systems.
The military implications of an icbm test would be bad. The political fallout would be worse. With its first breath China, North Korea’s indispensable patron and protector, may condemn the regime in Pyongyang for a reckless act, carried out in defiance of resolutions by the un Security Council. China may note that it is obliged to enforce un sanctions, hinting at a clampdown on (currently rampant) Chinese smuggling of oil into North Korea, and sanctions-busting by North Korea with its exports of coal and the sale of fishing rights. Alas, in its next breath China would probably opine that—if North Korea feels a need to test advanced weapons, or simply to attract the world’s attention—America has itself to blame. For it was America, China would insist, that churlishly rejected peace offers made by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, during his meetings with Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019. Worse, should Mr Biden urge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to join America in imposing crippling new sanctions on North Korea unless it abandons nuclear weapons, the near-consensus among Chinese scholars and foreign diplomats in Beijing is that Mr Xi will refuse.