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Beijing, which values stability in its region above all else, clearly has different priorities than Washington.
China’s greatest fear is the implosion of North Korea’s impoverished state and the resulting chaos that could cause, including possibly millions of refugees fleeing across the border into China.
For that reason, China has in many ways looked past North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and activity, prioritizing the security of Kim’s government, like his father’s and grandfather’s, over nuclear proliferation concerns.
China also remains deeply wary of any American military buildup in its backyard. Chinese officials are suspicious that the containment effort toward North Korea may be part of the long-term U.S. strategy to expand its influence in the region and even ring in fast-growing China with countries closer to Washington.
U.S. officials say they’ve gone to great lengths to explain to China that the American objective in North Korea, at least in the short term, is not to change governments.
The U.S. abhors the North’s human rights record, its regular provocations and military links with other international pariahs such as Iran. But the U.S. has stressed over years of conversations with Beijing that pushing for North Korean denuclearization could reinforce stability.
In Seoul on Friday, Kerry said President Barack Obama had canceled a number of military exercises planned with South Korea. The message that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a military confrontation was directed as much to the North as to Beijing.
The Obama administration believes it may now have greater scope for diplomatic progress.
It has pointed to Xi’s recent criticism of the North as illustrative of a subtle shift in China’s outlook. Beijing also has backed U.N. penalties in response to North Korea’s tests of a nuclear device and intercontinental ballistic missile technology over the past four months.
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