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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

As Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates power and rolls out his trillion-dollar plan for international influence, there's one undeniable thorn in his side: Kim Jong-un. If the North Korean regime falls, a unified Korea likely means American troops on Chinese shores. But if Kim holds onto his nuclear weapons, the likelihood of a devastating war on China's turf keeps escalating.

The bottom line: The instability makes Beijing extremely nervous. Its goal: no chaos, no war, no nukes. And it will do whatever it takes to get there.

"Belligerent little brother"
  • Since Xi and Kim took power, China's diplomatic relationship with North Korea has deteriorated, Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia-Pacific country risk at IHS Markit, tells Axios.
  • Fighting together in the Korean War, the two nations had a "blood relationship." Now, Xi is treating North Korea like any other country, says Hui Zhang, who studies China and nuclear policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
  • North Korea is like China's "belligerent little brother," Evans says. As a new and young leader, Kim has challenged the Chinese authority that his father accepted and sidelined pro-China factions of the North Korean leadership.
Don't underestimate how much North Korea and Kim hate China. And the feeling is mutual.
— Axios contributor Bill Bishop

What China wants: Stability and security in northeast Asia so China's strategic interests and trajectory of economic growth are preserved.

Sanctions squeeze

China's participation in the U.S.'s "maximum pressure campaign" against North Korea has played a big role in bringing North Korea to the table. North Korea gets 85% of its imports from China and sells 83% of its exports to China, per MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

A closer look at how Chinese sanctions are beginning to hurt North Korea, from the Wall Street Journal:

  • If sanctions continue, the impact could trigger an economic crisis by 2019.
  • The price of North Korean seafood has fallen by half as Chinese rejection of exported fish overwhelms the local markets.
  • After China adopted the U.N.'s ban on importing North Korean garments, one Chinese businessman abruptly shut down his factory, cutting the jobs of "200 North Korean workers, half of whose pay was going to the Pyongyang government."

Yes, but: Sanctions take years to take effect. Instead, the primary factor pushing North Korea to talk is the big nuclear bargaining chip, says Zhang: Kim's assurance that he's built up a strong enough nuclear arsenal to deter attack from the U.S. and ask for regime security.

What to watch

China has three roles to play in the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea:

  • China can guarantee North Korea that it'll hold the U.S. to its promise that it won’t attack or invade North Korea if Kim gives up his nuclear weapons. But it's hard for China to turn to the U.S. and say, "We'll come after you if you go after North Korea," says Zhang. The role of guarantor will have to be played in a strictly diplomatic sense.
  • China can offer help to verify denuclearization. The major dispute that will emerge in bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea is how Kim will allow the international community to verify denuclearization. North Korea is still a black hole for U.S. intelligence, and verification is the biggest hurdle in this latest round of talks, Axios' Shannon Vavra reports.
  • China can threaten further economic sanctions. The U.S. has the carrot that North Korea wants: the promise of regime security. And China's sanctions are the big stick that'll keep the pressure on Kim to negotiate.

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 5 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker