Thus the international organization’s response to the unprovoked sinking of a warship with substantial loss of life – a definite threat to international peace and security, one would have thought – was a presidential statement that did not even directly name the attacker. This was bad for the credibility of the United Nations; but it was worse for the credibility of China.
China has its reasons for giving succor to its North Korean ally, and they are not all historical. It is anxious to avoid a collapsed state on its eastern border – or, for that matter, a strong state on its eastern border in the form of a reunified Western-aligned Korea. Yet is North Korea a worthy burden for Beijing to carry especially given the thickness of China’s economic ties with South Korea and Japan? Who wants to live next to an unhinged, family-owned regime that, sooner or later, will go under? A Chinese strategist described the choice to me starkly: “North Korea is the bad guy and South Korea is the good guy. China has to be on the right side of history.”
North Korea fits the pattern of China’s broader UN relationship. In the past quarter-century, China has become a more skillful player in New York, represented by abler diplomats and behaving with more confidence in the Security Council chamber. Yet its approach to difficult security issues often seems more suited to a poor country than a great power.