China has the tiger by the tail with its adventurous foreign policy
© Getty

The latest conflict between the United States and North Korea seems to have quieted down slightly after China rejected the bellicose assertions of nuclear missile attacks on Guam.

The Washington Post reported that “China won’t come to North Korea’s aid if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation.” But the article also repeated the warning by China that “it would intervene if Washington strikes first.”

Does this action by China allow them to maintain their influence over the area while keeping the United States off balance?

Perhaps instead it is China that is off balance, busy directly confronting many countries in the Pacific Asia area through disputed territorial claims.

Carl Thayer wrote about the territorial conflict with Vietnam leading to diplomatic fallouts for The Diplomat: “This year’s long-scheduled Vietnam-China 4th Border Defense Friendly Exchange was unexpectedly canceled, reportedly due to Chinese displeasure at Vietnam’s resumption of oil exploration activities in the South China Sea.”

And in the Philippines, that nation is ready to resume drilling for oil and natural gas in a part of the South China Sea that Beijing claims is its territory. According to Forbes, “The drilling would strongly irritate China, which believes more than 90% of the sea including Reed Bank to be its own.” China is now attempting to “consolidate Beijing’s ever-growing control of the sea over the objections of Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as the Philippines.”

Alessio Patalano, senior lecturer in Asian security and war studies at King’s College London, remarked earlier this year:

“The Chinese decide where to make islands (in the South China Sea) by looking at the furthest possible range of planes, and radio stations, and then work where they need to build to make sure they have every area covered.”

Newsweek noted that “The only area they don’t have covered is the north east — and this is why the Scarborough Shoal, or reef, just 150 miles off the Philippines coast (and 400 miles away from China) is so important and so contentious. Building a military base on the reef would guarantee China coverage of the whole of the South China Sea, in terms of radio and military range.”

But China’s territorial aspirations extend beyond the waters of the Pacific. China is also laying claim, despite India’s objections, to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The Washington Post notes that the dispute has gotten physical, with soldiers “engaged in what is known as ‘jostling,’ when soldiers attempt to physically push rivals back.”

The Post provides additional insight into the conflict:

“Border scuffles between India and China have simmered in the past, but analysts from both sides said the latest spat has the potential to spiral into conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations. ... The standoff began at the end of June, while (Indian Prime Minister) Modi was meeting President Trump, prompting some Indian analysts to wonder whether the timing had anything to do with China’s disdain for India’s increasingly close ties to the United States.”

China’s activity all across the world stage finally brings us back to North Korea.

The possibility of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding into China by crossing the nations’ shared border is deeply concerning to Beijing.

Instability generated on the peninsula could cascade into China, making China’s challenge of providing for its own people that much more difficult,” says Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“There’s an increasing understanding that North Korea does not provide the kind of stable neighbor and element of the neighborhood that China likes,” according to former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and Six Party Talk negotiator Christopher R. Hill.

China’s territorial claims and expansions are subtly pushing their own form of antagonism behind the scenes across Asia. But North Korea’s actions could bring instability right on the Chinese border which could spiral out of control with dire consequences for China. How does China maintain control over North Korea but continue to chip away at western influence in Asia?

Unlike many prior efforts to sanction the rouge regime, China has joined the rest of the world in actually implementing these sanctions against North Korea. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Beijing's “Commerce Ministry announced a ban on imports of iron ore, iron, lead and coal from North Korea.”

China’s implementation of these sanctions increases North Korea’s dependence and furthers China’s influence over North Korea. But we also saw that China would support North Korea if there was a first strike against that nation.

By taking this position, China extends their protective envelope over North Korea, checking any Asian power or the United States from conducting preemptive strikes to prevent North Korea from firing an operational missile against an Asian country. But this does not stop North Korea from conducting missile and nuclear weapons tests to develop their ICBM and nuclear weapons capability. It also allows North Korea to build and stockpile both missiles and nuclear weapons without fear of intervention.

The result is China still has a nuclear surrogate in the form of North Korea, keeping Asia and the United States occupied with a sustained threat of imminent hostile action, while continuing to pursue their territorial ambitions throughout Asia.

However, during the president’s speech on Aug. 20, he reiterated support for India. “Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States.” The United States is likely sending a subtle message of warning to China and trying to keep Beijing occupied while increasing the influence of the United States in central Asia.

Over the next year, keep in mind that Chinese ambition and international brinkmanship are engulfing all of Asia, not just in North Korea.  

John M. DeMaggio is a retired special agent in charge and retired Captain in the U.S. Navy. The above is the opinion of the author and is not meant to reflect the opinion of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Government.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.