North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this month, so we can be pretty certain that the UN Security Council will meet in the near future to discuss a new set of measures to be implemented to deal with the perennial “North Korean issue.”
There is little doubt that China essentially holds all the keys, so Beijing’s position will be decisive for both drafting the UN resolution and, more significantly, its eventual implementation. However, there is a very good reason to believe that, this time, unlike in 2013, North Korean hardliners should not take Chinese support for granted. The measure to be taken will be limited, but China will not remain completely passive.
The present author spent the previous week in China talking to a number of officials, scholars and researchers. In this article, I will share what I learnt as best I can. I hope the readers will understand that, in such a piece, I cannot afford to be too frank and name too many names, but it I believe it will do no harm to present a general outline of the current mood in Beijing.
The last couple of years, as all North Korea watchers are aware, have been a fraught for Sino-North Korean relations. The third nuclear test, conducted in defiance of Chinese warnings in 2013, and the subsequent purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek, had a frosty effect on Beijing’s attitude to Pyongyang. This crisis produced much in the way of wishful thinking in the West, where some began to believe that China could be persuaded to exercise decisive influence on North Korea – forcing it to denuclearize and thus reaching the Holy Grail of North Korea-related diplomacy.
China, in spite of intense displeasure it feels with North Korea’s nuclear program, still needs a stable North Korea
These expectations have never been well-founded. Like it or not, China, in spite of intense displeasure it feels with North Korea’s nuclear program, still needs a stable North Korea, and does not want a crisis to erupt near its borders. China cannot fine-tune North Korea’s behavior. It probably can kick North Korea unconscious by dramatically reducing aid and perhaps even reciprocal trade. However, such drastic measures might very well provoke regime collapse, followed by massive political and military turmoil; clearly, this is not in China’s immediate interests.
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that, for a couple of years at least, China was willing to treat North Korea more harshly than at any time in recent memory. However, these days are now seemingly behind us.
Of course, there remains little in the way of sympathy for North Korea amongst either policymakers or the general public in China – indeed the country is seen as a joke. As one of my contacts in Beijing put it: “Within living memory, no country that was not at war with China has been so despised as North Korea is now.” Be that as it may, it seems that at some point last summer, the Chinese leaders made up their minds, and came to the conclusion that an erratic and nuclear, but domestically stable North Korea is still a lesser evil than a collapsing North Korea. Having come to such an understanding, Beijing decided to change its approach.
The fourth nuclear test hardly seems to have made a dent in this reversal. True, at first decision-makers in Beijing were outraged about the news, but within a couple of days, things calmed down, and it was obviously decided to continue business as usual. It is remarkable how quiet the border between North Korea and China is now, if compared to what it looked like immediately after the 2013 nuclear test. I visited the border soon after both tests, and the difference is truly striking. Everything is quiet nowadays, and there has been no noticeable increase in military presence or additional security measures.
This is not to say that Beijing is happy about what happened. In Beijing, you hear again and again that North Korean actions actually help the United States – now universally seen as China’s major strategic rival. Analysts and officials say that North Korean actions create conditions that allow the United States to justify an increased military presence – including the THAAD system, a complete anathema to Beijing policymakers.
BIGGER THAN KOREA
However, one should not see this dominant mood as proof that a further increase in the U.S. military presence will make China act to counter North Korean bellicosity. At least in the current mood, the more likely result is merely to make China more supportive of North Korea.
(China) will support some additional sanctions, largely in order to send Pyongyang a signal
This does not mean that China will be completely idle and will not do anything about the test. It will support some additional sanctions, largely in order to send Pyongyang a signal, to emphasize that it should not count on Chinese sympathy in its efforts to maintain and develop its nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, these additional measures are likely to be largely symbolic and/or related to military issues (like, say, even tougher controls on military and dual purpose technologies).
It is remarkable how annoyed Chinese analysts (including those who are not known to be loyal fans of the Communist Party) are by American attempts to exercise pressure on China over North Korea. The recent statements of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the effect that China was not active enough in its efforts with regard to North Korean denuclearization went down like lead balloon in Pyongyang.
Many of my contacts indicate that things are now different from 2013 largely because of the South China Sea crisis and rising tensions between Beijing and Washington (maybe electoral rhetoric in the U.S. doesn’t help things either). As one person I spoke with said, “It is impossible to fully cooperate on the Korean Peninsula issues so long as the United States continues to engage in provocative behavior in the South China Sea.” For an outsider such as myself, it is a seriously open question as to who is being provocative in that particular patch of ocean, but the very fact that tensions are running high destroys what little hope there was for Chinese help on the issue.
South Korean diplomats also have little reason to be optimistic. Seoul’s efforts to snuggle up to Beijing, while not completely unsuccessful, have failed to produce much of an impression. At the end of the day, for Chinese decision-makers, South Korea remains a staunch ally of the United States, and this is what matters. No amount of broad smiles, economic closeness or participation in symbolic occasions can possibly nullify the fact that there are 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea – stationed a couple of hundred miles away from China’s east coast (not mention the impending deployment of THAAD).
In a world where Chinese strategy is increasingly determined by its imperial rivalry with the United States, milk and mobile phones are just not that important compared to military bases and missile ranges. South Korean statements that U.S. troops are vital for South Korean security, however sincere, will not help when talking to their partners in Beijing. Although this is not a reason for South Korea to ask U.S. troops to leave.
Thus, yours truly believes that it is quite easy to predict what will happen at the UN soon: a lot of tough talk, but very little practical action. The Chinese position will ensure that no great increase in pressure is going to happen.