After the People’s Republic of China held back from opposing the American project of tough sanctions, a question that many people might have is whether the Chinese side made a bad bargain, and whether or not solidarity with the US package of sanctions was rather a strategic mistake, a forced measure or an action taken under the influence of emotions.
A possible answer to this can be found by considering China’s political duality, thus subsequently demonstrated. On April 5, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, China announced a ban on imports from North Korea, ranging from coal, iron ore and other minerals. It also prohibited the supply of aviation fuel to the DPRK. However, almost at the same time, representatives from Beijing stated that they would import minerals if the fact was established that the payment for them is for livelihood purposes.
The Chinese media was rather quiet on its coverage of the 2016 Day of the Sun (the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s main state holiday), and South Korean media even raised the question of whether Chinese delegates attended the festival. At the same time, China firmly condemned the failed attempt by its Northern neighbor to launch the ‘Musudan’ ballistic missile on this day. The Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out that the launch constituted a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and the Xinhua News Agency expressed quite tough criticism of the actions of the North, calling it reckless and “stupid.”
The Chinese delegation was absent at the recent WPK congress. Even though the congress went on in the absence of any government delegations, Chinese mass media representatives were among the journalists who received the most favorable treatment. There was no open criticism against Chinese policy made from the rostrum, only, as per tradition, certain countries were scolded without naming names.
At the same time, there is still friction associated with the situation in the South China Sea, as well as the deployment of the US missile defense system on the territory of South Korea. Chinese diplomats have repeatedly stated and pointed out that “the deployment of a missile defense system goes beyond the defense of South Korea’s needs.” According to Xie Yunlyan, Doctor at Academy of Military Sciences of China, the deployment of the missile defense system in South Korea greatly challenges the strategic balance in the region and China’s strategic security. He argues that the use of the THAAD system against the DPRK is very disproportionate
However, as stated by US Assistant Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, given the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, the placement of US THAAD mobile missile complexes on the Korean Peninsula is inevitable, despite China’s protests. According to Blinken, the North Korean threat is growing, as Pyongyang is approaching the level of technological development that will allow it to place nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Various experts interpret this policy by Beijing differently. The author’s version is that the Chinese leadership is counting on some strategic benefit, yielding a more effective leverage on North Korea than before. Because China controls 70% of the turnover of the DPRK and maintains the longest stretch of border with it, the severity of the sanctions may be offset by the low level of their performance. The clampdown strengthens North Korean informal dependence on China and means it may come to pass that Kim Jong-un” will be made an offer that would be difficult to refuse” in return for a compromise from China or their turning a blind eye. Because, although in the near future the Chinese will outwardly comply with sanctions to the letter, as soon as they finally begin feeling the pinch, they will start signaling about a possible change from aggression to mercy. However, there might be some obstacles in realizing this plan.
Firstly, it is not clear how the United States will take advantage of the situation, because the informal actions of China may be “exposed” and, in this sense, the United States will gain a certain leverage, allowing it to publicly accuse China of non-compliance with UN resolutions. It all depends on to what extent the United States really have the technical or intelligence resources to track whether China is turning a blind eye to sanctions or not.
Secondly, as seen above, US action against China, disguised as opposition to North Korea’s threat, will not disappear. The deployment of THAAD is considered a done deal, and the DPRK’s protests on this issue are being ignored. Consequently, even if (as suggested by some politicians) behind the scenes of the negotiations in the United Nations, there was talk of a “you join our sanctions, and we freeze the missile defense deployment”-deal
Finally, it is not clear how the Chinese actions could bring about resistance from the DPRK. The North can respond by typically raising the stakes. After all, North Korea can bear the positive example of a decade ago in mind, when its first nuclear test was conducted. Back then, it even prompted the Bush administration to abandon its previous strategy in favor of affirmative action, and, in general, 2006-2008 was marked by a significant step forward towards the possible settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear problem.
Another version explaining China’s behavior is that before Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington, they wanted to create a certain atmosphere: of course, our relationship has had a lot of ups and downs, but a breakthrough is possible, in which we can fight a common threat together. At the same time, Pyongyang was given the definite hint: “don’t assume that we will always have your backs covered, and think you can act carelessly, ignoring the interests of your ‘partner’”.
The North Korean subject, as it were, was sacrificed for political expediency, but the expected benefit did not come about, since the North does not play by Chinese rules and, for example, has flatly rejected their plan for parallel negotiations. Now, Beijing understands that their actions might have been overdone, and that it is necessary to take a step back. Ultimately, they did not want to relinquish Pyongyang completely, just teach it a lesson.
Another interpretation points to China’s real concerns regarding North Korea’s progress in the nuclear-missile sphere. This may be due to the fact that North Korea successfully carried out its fourth test, which unveiled to the world a full combat missile with a nuclear warhead, which accurately arrives at its target and destroy it. That is why a number of military analysts think that despite its problems brought about by sanctions, North Korea is not in a significantly worse position than China was in the nineteen sixties. In some ways, it is in an even better situation, because the North has access to modern computer technology, which was not exactly the case back then with China. Therefore, these military analysts are of the opinion that if the North is approaching their goal with the same tenacity that China did then, it stands to reason that they would apparently have something more than what they are currently displaying.
Whatever it may be, in the tactical sense, Beijing’s policy on North Korea will be connected with the balancing of two trends: the dissatisfaction with Pyongyang’s headstrong behaviour and a corresponding desire to “shorten the leash,” and the US-China confrontation in which the North Korea is a valuable springboard for China, and might even be an ally as well. China is not ready “to die for Pyongyang”, of course, but maintaining the status quo is more profitable than dramatic changes. Therefore, in spite of the pressure on the North, Beijing will support the regime in staying afloat. However, only time will tell how quickly any ‘cracks’ will open up along the 1,300km border, and how big they will be..
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”