This month marks the 58th anniversary of the China-North Korea “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance,” signed in 1961. The treaty is also commonly known as the “alliance treaty” as it includes a mutual defense clause, committing each country to come to the aid of the other should one party be attacked by a third state. Whether Beijing would indeed come to assist Pyongyang in case of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula is a question open to speculation.
While North Korea’s state media took advantage of the July 11 anniversary to praise the relationship with Beijing, in China the anniversary was only mentioned as a side note in the media. Chinese officials in general have refrained from making any public remarks on questions related to the “alliance treaty.” One obvious reason is that North Korea is a sensitive topic in China and thus has repeatedly been subject to censorship. The long-standing relationship with China’s neighbor has deliberately been kept in mystery and shrouded in secrecy to outsiders.
Another important reason for Beijing’s silence over the “alliance treaty” is that it stands in stark contrast to China’s fundamental policy of nonalignment and independence, which has guided the country’s foreign policy since the early 1980s. From a Chinese perspective, alliances are a Cold War relic that enhance conflicts rather than contributing to peace and security. Based on this rationale, China has frequently criticized the United States of maintaining a “Cold War mentality” because of its effort to strengthen and expand the “hub-and spoke” alliance system in Asia.
A Changing Relationship
Of course, the formal alliance relationship with Pyongyang is likewise a Cold War legacy and is indeed highly disputed in China. The demise of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the context of international politics in Northeast Asia and thus dissolved the rationale and significance of the “friendship treaty.” Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China’s foreign relations with other countries were no longer guided by ideological affinities but have been replaced by a pragmatic approach serving its long-term objectives of economic development and modernization. In accordance with its post-Mao approach, Beijing abandoned ideological phrases such as “blood alliance” or “friendship sealed in blood,” which once characterized the special relationship between the two Communist countries dating back to the Korean War (1950-53). Moreover, China’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992 marked a turning point in Sino-North Korean relations, inflicting a deep wound between the two comrades. North Korea’s persistent nuclear developments and provocative actions have placed a further burden on their relationship over the years.
At the beginning of the 21st century, China redefined its relations with the North as what the Chinese government calls a “normal state-to-state relationship.” Beijing now emphasizes that it develops its relationship with its neighbor just like it does with any other country. The strained or rather estranged relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been an open secret. In 2017, relations arguably even deteriorated to its lowest point since the Korean War, according to some observers. Despite all that, the Chinese government’s support for North Korea – economically, politically, and diplomatically – has been remarkably steady.
Continue or Terminate the Treaty?
However, the repeating cycles of provocation and escalation on the Korean Peninsula in the past has caused disagreement among Chinese analysts over the ambiguous relationship with its formal ally. In particular, analysts debate whether the “alliance treaty” still serves China’s national interests.
Some Chinese experts point out that the alliance solely exists on paper but in fact the nature of the relationship has significantly changed over the years. In the past, personal ties between the Communist leaders played a significant role in keeping the Sino-North Korean relationship stable. But this important element faded away after the deaths of Kim Il Sung and Deng Xiaoping. Yan Xuetong, one of the most influential Chinese scholars, firmly stresses that North Korea is not China’s ally. According to him, the fact that Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang were worse than those with Seoul (at least back in 2016, before their dispute over the THAAD issue), which is an ally of Washington, is quite telling. Similarly, the well-known Chinese international relations scholar Zhu Feng is of the opinion that the treaty “appears (to be) more symbolic than substantive.”
For a group of Chinese scholars, the continuation of the formal alliance does not align with China’s national interests anymore. Some therefore have called for scrutinizing the nature and legal validity of the pact. Being committed to an alliance always comes with certain costs and in this specific case critics of the treaty believe that the costs definitely outweigh the benefits. In their view, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons not only seriously threatens China’s national interests but also could possibly drag China into a major war in the future.
Despite the mutual defense clause, Chinese scholars arguing in favor of terminating the treaty often refer to North Korea’s violation of article four, which states: “The Contracting Parties will continue to consult with each other on all important international questions of common interest to the two countries.” From their perspective, Pyongyang has never consulted or sought Beijing’s consent on its determined plans to illegally acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, they criticize that despite their decades-long “friendship,” North Korea has not taken China’s national interests into serious consideration. Instead, in their opinion, the Kim regime has relentlessly pursued its own policy goals while the alliance treaty provides Pyongyang with a certain security of not being easily attacked by a third country regardless of its provocative behavior and actions.
Such critical voices, however, remain in the minority and are less likely to be found publicly in China now as the Sino-North Korean relationship has considerably warmed up since March 2018.
The majority of Chinese analysts and therefore probably the majority within official Chinese policy circles still underline the significance of the treaty for China’s geostrategic policy in the region. On the one hand it is regarded as an instrument serving China’s interests of preserving security and stability in the region. From a Chinese perspective, the formal alliance with its Communist neighbor functions as a deterrent against the United States’ seeking regime change in North Korea by military means. On the other hand, it allows Beijing to maintain its influence and leverage over Pyongyang. Moreover, given the growing rivalry between China and the United States, the Korean Peninsula as a venue of strategic competition is becoming increasingly prominent and thus the stance of the Chinese leaders on the treaty is unlikely to change.
Currently, the “friendship treaty” is valid until 2021. If the two contracting parties don’t decide otherwise, it will then be automatically renewed for another 20 years, just like in 1981 and 2001.
Anny Boc is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies (GEAS) at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on China’s foreign policy in Northeast Asia and U.S.-China relations.