Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
If history judges that this week's Vancouver Foreign Ministers' Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula did global tensions more harm than good, China will wait patiently to collect its geopolitical winnings.
And for Canada, the main legacy of the forum may be increasingly thorny relations with the world's emerging superpower.
When the Vancouver conference concluded Tuesday night, the main takeaway was Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson imploring all United Nations members – including the absent Russia and China – to fully implement the UN Security Council's latest stringent sanctions designed to squeeze the North Korean economy with "maximum pressure."
As Mr. Tillerson emphasized, "the purpose of the maximum pressure campaign is intended to cause North Korea to engage as a credible negotiating partner in addressing a pathway to a denuclearization of the peninsula." Of course, the people who will feel the deepest pain of this maximum pressure are the most vulnerable of North Korea's population. Malnourished children will have less to eat, while the sick and elderly lose access to life-giving medicines.
In the unlikely event that North Korea's economy can be seriously destabilized by genuinely effective international sanctions this time, what is the more likely outcome? It's hard to imagine Kim Jung-un surrendering his nuclear weapons, thus undercutting his hold on power and ultimately leading to his going before International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. A more plausible response is even more frenzied brandishing of his nuclear arsenal, threatening the unthinkable in order to save himself from the humiliation of a trial followed by a lifetime of incarceration in the Hague.
Canada, meanwhile, has more than global diplomacy to calculate. Forgiving and broad-minded the Chinese Communists are not, and if Beijing interprets Canada's hosting of the conference as having led to "hostile" foreign naval vessels patrolling East Asian waters, intercepting ships smuggling Chinese oil and other sanction-bucking commodities into North Korea, then the legacy of Vancouver will be its chilling effect on Canada-China relations, and on any notion of Canada being favoured by Chinese trade concessions.
But an international armada enforcing sanctions may never materialize, as few nations want to incur China's ire by participating in such interdiction on the high seas. Which means North Korea will continue to get most of the oil and other commodities it needs, and China and Russia will continue to prop up Pyongyang because it serves their purposes to do so.
North Korea will also continue to relentlessly refine its weapon capability to, before long, achieve the undisputed ability to explode a nuclear device over any city in the United States. And when that capability is proven, the global game changes dramatically. At a minimum, American allies will doubt if the U.S. really can defend them if the cost of that for the United States is a North Korean ICBM attack on U.S. territory These allies would start to see Beijing as a better bet in terms of their own security. Last weekend's chaotic false alarm in Hawaii showed that the U.S. has made few preparations against such an outcome.
China seems content to wait for the North Korean crisis to come to a head before offering to collaborate in changing the Pyongyang regime and dismantling the nuclear weapons on Chinese terms. Already, Beijing is demanding that the U.S. cease all joint military exercises with South Korea as the price of another round of Chinese-mediated dialogue with the DPRK. The next demand would be that the U.S. withdraw its troops based in South Korea and Japan. Then comes abrogation of the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan.
China is confident the U.S. will not exercise its only other option when the Vancouver meeting's "maximum pressure" fails to bring North Korea to heel – which is that the U.S. revive the Korean War by initiating military action to cow the North Koreans into submission. God willing, the horrendous slaughter that that would entail will give pause to even a stable genius in Washington.
There are various endings for Canada. We are now tied to the fate of Mr. Tillerson, but he may be replaced by hawkish White House hardliners if his North Korea strategy proves ineffective. In which case, Canada's relations with a Trump White House may also be a casualty of the Vancouver meeting.
China is playing very high-stakes poker with North Korea, but the game serves Beijing's ardently nationalistic geopolitical ambitions if it gets the U.S. out of its East Asian backyard. For China this is no longer a matter of if, but when and how.