Chinese leaders undoubtedly have a strategy with respect to North Korea and the West, although it is also likely they have hard-liners and moderates creating dynamic tension.
This piece describes the North Korean strategy, with the familiar point that the North Koreans have an ongoing crisis of legitimacy and believe they need their nukes to stave off a US overthrow (Libya and Qadaffi are mentioned here, although She Who Must Not Be Named is omitted as the architect of that venture.)
But a key point is made in the discussion of what it might take to soothe the fears of the North Korean rulers:
The High Costs of a Deal
Any agreement that North Korea would be likely to consider minimally acceptable would come at huge cost to the United States and its allies. North Korea would be likely to require:
■ A tacit acknowledgment of the country’s right to retain its existing programs.
■ A declaration that the United States considered the North Korean government legitimate and would not seek to topple it.
■ The lifting of sanctions.
■ The withdrawal or reduction of the American military commitment to South Korea.
“They want to see the end of that alliance,” said Joshua H. Pollack, the editor of the Nonproliferation Review, suggesting that North Korea has drawn inspiration from the way that the United States broke with Taiwan in order to normalize relations with China in the 1970s.
Mr. Pollack emphasized that North Korea probably saw this as a long-term goal to be accomplished over many years, rather than something to demand up front and all at once.
Still, he said, North Korea may see this as the only way to reduce the existential threat that its weapons program is meant to curb.
Any partial or full American withdrawal would risk sending the American relationship with South Korea and Japan into crisis, empowering North Korea and weakening American influence in Asia.
Hmm, breaking the South Korea/Japan/USA alliance and booting the US out of that part of the world... who else might benefit from that? China, maybe a bit?
Which suggests that as much as we exhort China to bring Kim Jong Un to heel, there are surely Chinese hard-liners arguing that in the longer run, North Korean and China have a broad overlap of interests. Troubling!
But then again, in what is presumably a signal to those North Koreans, the Chinese leadership has allowed some moderate dissent:
Criticism of Beijing’s North Korea Policy Comes From Unlikely Place: China
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING — When China’s best-known historian of the Korean War, Shen Zhihua, recently laid out his views on North Korea, astonishment rippled through the audience. China, he said with a bluntness that is rare here, had fundamentally botched its policy on the divided Korean Peninsula.
China’s bond with North Korea’s Communist leaders formed even before Mao Zedong’s decision in 1950 to send People’s Liberation Army soldiers to fight alongside them in the Korean War. Mao famously said the two sides were “as close as lips and teeth.”
But China should abandon the stale myths of fraternity that have propped up its support for North Korea and turn to South Korea, Mr. Shen said at a university lecture last month in Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port city.
“Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend,” Mr. Shen said, according to a transcript he published online. “We must see clearly that China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, and in the short term there’s no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations.”
Whoa! It's hard to imagine that China would be willing to accept a re-unified Korea under South Korean leadership as part of a Western alliance. On the other hand...
China’s “traditionalist view that views the U.S. as a much greater threat than North Korea is deeply entrenched,” Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an email. “But the proponents of change are vocal, too. They argue that North Korea is a growing liability.”
What China really wants is stability and calm:
Mr. Shen has gone much further than other scholars in calling for a reset.
“The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds,” he said in his lecture. “China’s fundamental interest lies in achieving a stability on its borders and developing outward. But since North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, that periphery has never been stable, so inevitably Chinese and North Korean interests are at odds.”
With Obama in office the Chinese were never really worried that the US would do something daft, so placating North Korea and annoying the US was the lower-risk path. George Bush, of course, was mired in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bill Clinton had his own distractions, some in Iraq and some closer to the Oval Office.
But Trump? There is a guy who can play the 'crazy' card with as much gusto as Kim Jong Un (I always thought that was a modest talking point in favor of the McCain Presidency, for what that was worth).
If - yuge IF - forced to acknowledge that their current path leads to a potentially disastrous confrontation China might yet try to walk a different road. My ongoing hope is that they try to preserve North Korea as an independent buffer on their border under sane new puppet leadership provided by the son of the recently-poisoned legitimate heir. Such a great deal can be worked out!