The Sino-north-Korean alliance is found upon the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, yet, the latter’s ambiguity betrays a sense of unwieldiness of the former. Upon further scrutiny, the Treaty is far less of a direct military alliance and expecting China’s military to come to Pyongyang’s aid would be nothing short of wishful thinking.
Let us first familiarize ourselves with its first and second articles:
“The Contracting Parties will continue to make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples.”
Upon this premise, the second article dictated the following:
“The Contracting Parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state.”
And in the event of a contracting party was invaded:
“…the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal”.
Framing these two lines in the context of ongoing nuclear crisis, we can see that Beijing has a lot of wriggle room to free itself from any obligation. At the end of the day, Pyongyang’s persistence in its nuclear program leads to the whole fiasco, and thus, directly violates the first article (safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples). Therefore, if conflict breaks out due to North Korea’s nuclear program, Beijing can refuse to offer any military assistance on the grounds of such violation. What is almost certain of the treaty is that, if North Korea scored first blood against a third party, China would not be its co-belligerent ally. In the worst case scenario, if North Korea launches the first nuke, it would almost be certain that China would deny being responsible for North Korea’s action and its consequences citing the said violation.
If military aid is not guaranteed post-strike, would Beijing be obligated to declare war on the United States when the latter launches a preemptive surgical strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear facility? Not quite. First off, there has yet to be a consensual definition on ‘invasion’ among international community. Even so, after North Korea announcement of its capability to strike US homeland, any preemptive strike from the States can be explained as self-defence. From this point onward, whether China would be obligated to declare war on the US relies solely on Beijing’s interpretation of the same term as well.
At the end of the day, the Treaty symbolize an expedient alliance made at the turbulent height of cold war. Times have changed and the players in and around the Korean peninsula found themselves dancing to a different tune.
On top of all that, the second clause was worded as ‘military assistance’ instead of ‘military action’. In the Beijing’s dictionary, ‘assistance’ can range from the provision of intelligence to weaponry, from moral support to seizing command with military advisors. At the outbreak of an American-North Korean conflict, China would have the last say in its timing and the form of intervention. Relatively unbounded by the Treaty, its decision was only weighed with her own national interest. Even if China send its troops to Korean Peninsula, North Korea may not fulfill its end of the deal. Should Pyongyang choose to follow every word of the Treaty, North Korean soldiers do not even need fight shoulder to shoulder with their Chinese counterparts so long as China remains uninvaded.
At the end of the day, The Treaty symbolize an expedient alliance made at the turbulent height of cold war. Times have changed and the players in and around the Korean peninsula found themselves dancing to a different tune. In present days, the Treaty should not have been and cannot possibly be something that limits Beijing in negotiation rooms; which is why, on the contrary, China intends to exploit its ambiguity to navigate through the intricacy of South East Asia. Towards North Korea, China can avoid from being strategically hijacked by Pyongyang’s agenda. Towards the United States and its allies, Beijing retained a casus-belli of military intervention, and by extension a deterrence. On the contrary, the State’s protection over South Korea and Japan is laid out in much more nuanced terms and, at least in terms of statesmanship, Trump’s suggestion to normalize Japan’s military may not so outrageous after all.