China’s ambiguity towards the global order has been on display this month in its approach towards North Korean proliferation. On March 8 Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the US and North Korea as “two trains speeding towards each other”, placing China in the role of “switchman” attempting to avoid the collision.
Yi's method for de-escalation is a proposed twin suspension: both of North Korean ballistic and nuclear activities, and of US and allies’ military manoeuvres in the region. The proposal also includes opening peace talks between the two parties, and the maintenance of international sanctions on North Korea.
China is not just a well-meaning bystander, even if it claims to have no influence on North Korean behaviour
The problem with this is that China is not just a well-meaning bystander, even if it claims to have no influence on North Korean behaviour. Wang Yi in fact used the old expression of “lips and teeth” to describe China’s relationship with North Korea.
This is also borne out by the UN’s recent report on compliance with the sanctions resolutions. That North Korea wishes to evade these sanctions, and in particular is intent on a flourishing arms trade, comes as no surprise. More striking, however, is how prominently China is involved in facilitating its wishes.
The report lists Chinese involvement in six out of nine cases of prohibited arms transfers, and 12 out of 16 cases of activities abroad by North Korean entities under sanction. The report’s observation that there have been no changes in the pattern of air force sorties by the DPRK also seems to contradict China’s claim that it has strictly limited aviation fuel sales to the regime.
China has thus far avoided commenting on the report. But while Beijing’s sudden decision to suspend coal imports from North Korea has been interpreted as a sign of displeasure over the recent ballistic tests (and perhaps the murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia), it may also have been intended to head off criticism of its sanctions violations. Indeed, China had already imported its yearly quota of North Korean coal allowed by the sanctions regime in the first two months of 2017, while last year its purchases were twice the agreed amount. China only cited the quota issue, not any larger intent, in justifying the halt to these imports.
Beijing has largely tolerated its unpredictable neighbour until now on the grounds that the downfall of the North Korean regime and the creation of a unified Korea would present a greater challenge to China’s regional dominance. China has also been less concerned than most about Pyongyang’s nuclear threat – indeed, it has been happy to see the threat of North Korea’s conventional artillery deterrence diminish as it rebalances towards nuclear capabilities. Hence its half-hearted support for the sanctions regime.
Will the deployment of the American THAAD missile defence system to South Korea this month change the calculus for Beijing? China has nothing to fear from the anti-missile batteries – which can only intercept incoming missiles over South Korea in their terminal phase. But the radar system monitoring missile launches may also, in spite of US denials, have the capacity to track outgoing missiles launched from Northeast China in the opposite direction, because the back of a missile offers a larger radar signature than the front cone.
In response Beijing is pressuring Seoul to refuse the American anti-missile deployment (being careful not to directly challenge the Trump administration) with its own economic sanctions – by restricting the flow of Chinese tourists to South Korea and punishing the department store company that sold the land for the THAAD system. It might even succeed in these efforts: South Korea has never resolved the dilemma between a hard line on the North and avoiding conflict with China, and South Korean politics are currently in disarray.
The halt of coal imports was little more than a belated implementation of agreed sanctions. But China is also hardening its stance towards South Korea following the THAAD deployment. This episode demonstrates that China will continue to support the international system only when it aligns with Chinese interests: When sanctions impede China’s relations with its strategically important neighbour, it waters them down. And when the US responds to North Korea by increasing its own defense capacities, China appears to close ranks with North Korea.
This can be seen in Wang Yi’s proposal, which effectively accepts all North Korean nuclear and ballistic developments so far while neutering the potential military response from South Korean soil. After decades of international action to prevent nuclear proliferation on the peninsula, the proposal would effectively reward Pyongyang for its tenacity in pursuing nuclear and ballistic goals.
Throughout a story that is on-going since 1991, China has prioritized its own strategic priorities over counter-proliferation and international accords. That is not a good omen for China’s future international role.
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