At a time when China's territorial assertiveness has strained its ties with many countries in the region, and its once-tight hold on Myanmar has weakened, its deteriorating relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, renders it a power with no real allies. The question now is whether the United States and other powers can use this development to create a diplomatic opening to North Korea that could help transform northeast Asia's fraught geopolitics.
China's ties with Myanmar began to deteriorate in late 2011, when Myanmar decided to suspend work on its largest and most controversial Chinese-aided project: the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The decision shocked China, which had been treating Myanmar as a client state — one where it retains significant interests, despite today's rift.
The bold decision to halt the dam project may have hurt Myanmar's relationship with China, but it was a positive step for its relations with the rest of the world. Indeed, a major political shift followed, bringing about the easing of longstanding Western sanctions and ending decades of international isolation.
By distancing himself from China, North Korea's young dictator, Kim Jong-un, could well be signalling a desire to move in a similar direction. Of course, if he is seeking a thaw in relations with the US, he has a long way to go.
For most observers, the episode that triggered the deterioration in China's relationship with North Korea — the execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek — simply reflected North Korea's erratic and obscure politics. For China, however, it was personal.
The treason charges levelled against Jang — China's most valued friend in North Korea's regime — included underselling resources like coal, land, and precious metals to China.
But China's carefully nurtured "blood relations" with North Korea have been souring almost since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. In an early show of defiance, North Korea seized three Chinese fishing boats, detained a reported 29 people on board for 13 days and then demanded $190,000 in compensation for illegal fishing in North Korean waters. Kim went on to rile China further by carrying out his country's third nuclear test.
Unsurprisingly, China's state-run media have responded to Kim's attempts to chart an independent course by accusing him of pursuing the "de-Sinification" of the hermit kingdom. But, beyond an anti-Kim propaganda campaign, China's options are limited, not least because it has a strong interest in retaining access to North Korea's vast reserves of minerals — just as it retains access to Myanmar's massive and undeveloped reserves.
More important, any Chinese attempt to squeeze North Korea, including by cutting off energy and food supplies, would risk triggering a mass influx of refugees.
Worse, from China's perspective, it could bring about the collapse of the Kim family's rule, which could unravel the North Korean state and lead to a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the US.
The prospect of US troops on its border is a nightmare scenario for China. Moreover, a reunified Korea would inherit on going territorial and resource disputes with China. China would likely accept reunification only if it led to a "Finlandized" Korea that offers permanent strategic concessions to the superpower next door.
Like North Korea today, Myanmar was, until recently, an isolated, militaristic country suffering under prolonged and escalating international sanctions. In fact, reflecting its growing frustration with Kim, China co-sponsored the most recent round of United Nations sanctions against North Korea last year.
But, whereas Myanmar is a diverse society that has long been ravaged by internal conflicts pitting ethnic-Burmese governing elites against many of the country's minority groups, North Korea is a homogenous, regimented, and nuclear-armed society. In other words, North Korea is a far more potent threat to the rest of the world.
Still, the China-North Korea rift marks a potential turning point in northeast Asian geopolitics. If the US is to seize the diplomatic opening, it must shed its reliance on the Chinese to serve as its intermediary with North Korea — a sore point with the Kim regime, given its desire to reduce its dependence on China. Unlike the US opening with Myanmar, which led to US President Barack Obama's historic visit in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to be based on reaching a denuclearization agreement. The question is whether Obama — who is weighed down not only by domestic woes, but also by efforts to reach an agreement on Syria and an interim nuclear deal with Iran — has the political room or personal inclination to enter into risky negotiations with North Korea.