In past weeks, as the North Korean problem has escalated, there has been increasing commentary on the role of China in resolving the issue.
These comments have included British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stating that China needs to do more to control North Korea by tightening the “economic ligature,” and that Beijing is in a unique position to intervene and de-escalate the situation.
Towards the more nuanced end of the analysis, it has been noted by Adam Cathcart that there is not a singular “Chinese” position, and nor should there be an expectation that there is one, especially after protests in the bordering provinces of China against the implementation of resolutions banning seafood imports.
In recent weeks there have also been signs that China is now imposing more UN sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang, as per its obligations under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.
These stories all have an underlying assumption that this is something new and indicates a change in China’s position. Indeed, these stories reinforce a narrative that Chinese compliance is essential if they are going to be successful and, therefore, this new approach by China is going to make a significant difference.
This is an interesting development in a number of ways: (1) claims of a new approach by China is not something new: in 2013, when sanctions were imposed against DPRK (resolutions, 2087 and 2094) there were similarly jubilant claims that China had changed its position. (2) China, as evidenced by Panel of Experts reports, has previously shut down companies and imposed sanctions, but this was not widely reported. (3) It perhaps says something more interesting about the U.S. administration’s attempts to more positively engage with Beijing than it says about China’s position.
It’s clear that this latest development needs to be more accurately positioned in the context of the long-term narrative of China’s relationship to the sanctions.
China’s position – if such a thing is possible to distill – is that sanctions, and their implementation, need to be targeted towards re-opening negotiations
Indeed, a key limitation in the debate on China’s role is that despite these important insights, there is an absence of discussion of what levels of compliance are needed in order to make these sanctions effective. And what sequence or process needs to be initiated in order for sanctions to be seen as effective?
China does not have a singular unified approach to sanctions or to resolving North Korean nuclearization. In another piece, for the ASAN open forum two years ago, I noted that there are a range of interests that Beijing must balance.
Among these, this includes the interests of border provinces for which trade with the North is linked to economic development, and the People’s Liberation Army’s desire to engage in exercises in the area of the North Korean borders – as well as broader regional and geopolitical interests for Beijing.
As a result, China’s position – if such a thing is possible to distill – is that sanctions, and their implementation, need to be targeted towards re-opening negotiations, rather than directly forcing an end to the nuclear program.
This is not a singular moment of success but rather a sequence for success and is distinct from what the U.S. wants (the end of the nuclear program before talks). As a result, these differences necessitate different patterns of implementation of sanctions, and they set up different standards against which implementation can be measured.
When looking in detail at China’s approach to implementing sanctions and the role that it has played, there are notable center-periphery problems. Look, for example, at the three-year gap in the implementation of the sanctions against the Namhunggang trading company – an entity related to the Namchonggang trading company designated in resolution 2270 of 2016. Its trading license was revoked by Beijing in 2012, before the 2270 sanctions, but only revoked in Dandong in 2015 – as highlighted in the 2017 Panel of Experts report.
There is a range of interests that Beijing must balance
And although there are different patterns of implementation between Beijing and the provinces, there is some evidence that China is trying to cut trade with Pyongyang.
As reported by the Washington Post, the imposition of the latest sanctions is beginning to hit the economies of the border regions. Hence, although it is easy to claim Beijing is not fully compliant with sanctions, it is also not always in a position to extend its surveillance of all of these companies and the province’s progress in implementing resolutions.
Despite this, there is evidence of increasing implementation of the new sanctions regime, and that China can and is seeking to reduce its overall trade with the DPRK across sectors, particularly in trade that is concentrated in Beijing. However, it is also vital to highlight that implementing sanctions ‘fully’ in the border regions would challenge regional interests and other objectives of China.
Only when provincial interests change that there is will be a change in provincial implementation patterns. This might happen when the pain of imposing sanctions is significantly higher than the benefits, or when that pain is mitigated by other factors – such as reputational damage or the presence of new markets in the provinces.
Furthermore, it is also true that Beijing believes that through the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) with the DPRK, internal change to the regime is more likely, and that only through internal change will stability on the peninsula be maintained.
However, if SEZs are to develop these zones need to be free from sanctions limitations. With the new ban on textiles included, this presents a serious challenge to China’s approach in this area.
The imposition of the latest sanctions are beginning to hit the economies of the border regions
A further element here is that China has its own domestic economy to protect, and also seeks to maintain a humanitarian approach to the DPRK. As reported in the U.S. media, China’s trade in food stocks (specifically corn) have increased in recent months, as China seeks to sell its oversupply of corn and respond to growing DPRK demand.
Another aspect of China’s implementation patterns is the maintenance of its international reputation as a responsible power. Particularly, in the three months since resolution 2356 in June 2017, China’s reputation has suffered greatly from claims that it has failed to adequately implement the sanctions resolutions.
Yet, in looking at the reports from the Panel of experts it is clear that although there are issues with China’s implementation practices, there is weakness in all implementation by all states.
Indeed, in a number of cases – including the Wanshan trading company who sold the notorious ‘lumber transporters’ to North Korea that were subsequently used to transport missiles, China’s attempts to publically demonstrate its level of compliance can be seen in the company’s production of an end user certificate (UN Document S/2013/337 paragraph 54).
Even from these few examples, there is evidence that China is implementing sanctions to the degree that preferences its own interests and its own approach to the North Korea problem, rather than in line with the expectations or demands of the West. The irony here is that in criticisms of these approaches to implementation, China is assessed against policy preferences in the U.S. that are not completely supported as the best approach within the Trump administration.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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