Song Tao, a prominent diplomat and head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC), arrived in North Korea on Friday for a four-day visit as a special envoy of Beijing.
Song Tao’s trip comes at a time when relations between North Korea and China are changing fast: since mid-August, Beijing has been increasingly tough on its neighbor and, technically, ally.
Readers with good memories may recall that we have seen this before: in recent years there have been many episodes when observers claimed that China had finally decided to get serious about economic sanctions on North Korea.
In most cases, such periods of supposed “toughness” did not last for long, and in a few months or so things returned to business as usual.
But this time the changes seem to be serious – at least, more serious than at any point throughout the last decade or so.
When, on the September 11, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2375, the toughest resolution ever on the North Korean issue, Chinese diplomats showed a great deal of support for the document.
This came as a surprise to many observers, including myself, who, relying on earlier experience, predicted that Beijing would drag its feet.
This time the changes seem to be serious
The Chinese were also reportedly almost as active proponents of tougher sanctions as their American colleagues and, therefore, were willing to exercise much more pressure on the less determined members of the Security Council.
What has also been remarkable is how, in recent weeks, Chinese scholar-officials have suddenly changed their tune when interacting with their peers.
People who, as recently as last spring, vocally expressed disapproval about excessively tough sanctions and suggested that North Korea should be treated with greater patience are now saying that China has had enough and should switch to a tougher policy.
Furthermore, the same people also, rather aggressively, suggest that the same tough approach should be adopted by other countries, including Russia.
This new decisiveness is not the only indication of an ongoing U-turn in China’s North Korean policy. Recent reports indicate that economic relations between the two neighbors are going downhill.
In September, China discontinued the import of fresh seafood from North Korea (dry seafood is still OK). The import of mineral resources has also been dramatically cut.
In another important move, in September Chinese authorities declared that joint ventures with North Korea should discontinue their operations in early January 2018 – in line with recent UNSC resolutions.
Among other things, this means that North Korean restaurants which for many years have been a constant feature of life in Dandong, Shenyang and other border cities, will go out of business within a couple of months.
Of course, it is not clear to what extent such bans are going to be implemented, but local observers are pretty certain: this time, the North Koreans will have to start packing.
Chinese companies which are currently employing North Korean workers have been notified that they should refrain from extending their contracts.
They were also warned that, in accordance with Resolution 2375, they should not invite more North Korean workers.
Thus, some of my contacts in China say that they and other fellow businessmen are now looking for replacements for their soon-to-depart North Korean personnel – generally, they are looking for workers from less developed parts of China.
If the Chinese authorities mean business, some 30-40,000 workers, currently employed by Chinese companies, are likely to leave the country within a year or so, upon the expiration of their contracts, and not going to be replaced. This means a rather serious loss of income for North Korea – to the tune of USD$150-200 million a year, one would suspect.
Businessmen are now looking for replacements for their soon-to-depart North Korean personnel
What does it all mean? In the past, China has been remarkably forgiving when it came to dealing with North Korea, with Beijing limiting sanctions, generally, to those focusing on the military or dual-use technology.
This change of attitude appears even more strange if one takes into account that, at the end of the day, China is not interested in putting excessive pressure on North Korea.
The logic of the Chinese position is easy to follow: while a nuclear-armed North Korea is indeed dangerous and destabilizing, the collapse of the regime, followed either by a civil war or a Seoul-led unification, constitutes a greater threat for China.
At the same time, it is widely feared that excessive sanctions will provoke an economic crisis which will, in turn, lead to regime collapse.
Beijing decisions-makers are duly concerned by the news coming from Washington.
Therefore, the Chinese government has long opted for the lesser evil and so far has been quite willing to keep the North Korean government afloat by providing it with modest economic assistance and implementing sanctions selectively.
However, this policy, which has been implemented for at least two decades, is changing. Why?
The most likely answer lies in the actions of the U.S., and there are good reasons to believe that Beijing decisions-makers are duly concerned by the news coming from Washington.
They should be: while the signals are difficult to decipher and often contains contradictory information, the majority opinion seems to be that President Trump and his inner circle are remarkably aggressive on North Korean issues, and might even be seriously considering a military strike in order to stop Pyongyang’s missile program.
Frankly, not every observer agrees that Donald Trump actually harbors such a bellicose approach to the North Korean problem.
Some Washington observers suspect that it is, essentially, a show aimed at Beijing. According to this analysis, Donald Trump wants to appear dangerous and unpredictable to make both the North Koreans and the Chinese more willing to accept his demands.
One has to have a direct access to Donald Trump’s brain to know for sure, but it seems that his behavior, sincere or not, is indeed having an impact on the Chinese position.
THE TREASURY’S TOOLBOX
Another factor is the looming threat of “secondary sanctions” which, if implemented, would create significant problems for Chinese businesses and set a dangerous precedent.
Of course, the Chinese government might understand that they are dealing with a calculated performance, but like everybody else, they cannot be absolutely sure and it might be logical for them not to risk it.
Indeed, from the Chinese point of view, there is one thing that is even worse than the threat of instability in North Korea: a large-scale war on the Korean peninsula.
Since it appears that Donald Trump is increasingly serious about provoking such a war, it is logical for China to change their attitude and start pushing North Korea.
Such a policy achieves two goals. If successful, Chinese pressure will probably help stop or slow down North Korean missile and nuclear development and, as a result, will help decrease tensions.
But even if the Chinese efforts fail (and this is very likely), this policy will still be useful: it will help China buy time in dealing with the United States.
It is assumed that Donald Trump will not start shooting if he believes that China has finally joined U.S. efforts and is hitting North Korea hard. He is more likely to wait until the sanctions will deliver results.
There might be an additional dimension in this development, too: the Chinese government might use the U.S. enthusiasm for sanctions as a way to increase its own leverage over North Korea.
Pyongyang… is, at the end of the day, much more likely to make a deal with Beijing
BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Beijing may believe that Kim Jong Un, if facing a real threat of instability provoked by sanctions, will come to China and negotiate some political settlement with Beijing. Under such a deal, North Korea will probably keep its nuclear weapons, but will agree to follow Chinese suggestions on wider issues.
Pyongyang, if facing joint pressure from China and the U.S., is at the end of the day much more likely to make a deal with Beijing, which is less threatening to the long-term survival of the Kim family regime.
These two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible that, for the time being, China is trying to buy time and reduce tensions with the U.S. by being unusually tough on North Korea. If such policies make North Korea more dependent on China, it is fine, but at any rate, it will help China to prevent a massive crisis in Korea.
But what about the usual Chinese concerns regarding a possible regime collapse? These worries are still valid, but as one of my Chinese contacts recently said, Beijing hopes that it can find a golden middle point between applying pressure which is not sufficient to inflict change and pressure which is likely to provoke regime collapse and disintegration.
As a high-level Chinese official told me: “We believe we know how to punish Pyongyang and inflict pain on them without pushing them towards collapse.”
One can doubt whether such a golden middle exists, but it appears that for now, with Trump in the White House, China has very little choice. For the time being, Beijing must act tough – even though it is still likely that it will be business as usual when U.S. pressure begins to wane at some point in the future.
Indeed, if the current change in China’s position is essentially a reaction to challenges from the White House, one should expect that Beijing will revert to this earlier position once pressure is relaxed.
China’s strategic interests have not changed: it does not like a nuclear-armed North Korea, but still considers instability a greater threat.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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