China – North Korea’s Great Wall
Escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula have resulted in significant pressure from US President Donald Trump and other national leaders, for China to help end North Korea’s development of its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Pyongyang’s provocations and continued development of its nuclear weapon and missile capabilities have been a significant source of the instability which has gripped the East Asian region since the end of 2016, with increasing tensions between South Korea and China and the deployment of a US Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Korean Peninsula all being linked to North Korea. However, like previous attempts to have China place pressure on North Korea, this most recent attempt is likely to bear little fruit as China’s North Korea policy remains primarily focused on managing the US response to North Korean provocations, and less on pressuring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Since the early 2000s China, upon whom North Korea is almost entirely economically dependent, has seen similar calls to President Trump’s to help end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but is yet to take any meaningful action to halt Pyongyang’s increasingly rapid advance to a nuclear weapon. Over the same period, China has also actively been relieving pressure placed on North Korea from the international community despite ‘supporting’ sanctions against Pyongyang for their nuclear program provocations. This pressure has been relieved through allowing Chinese companies to continue to trade and invest in North Korea, which until June 2016, included trading of dual-use goods and materials which could be used in the development of the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Beijing has absorbed significant criticism from the international community in propping up the North Korean Regime, but why has it continued to tolerate a nuclear North Korea on its doorstep? China has several reasons for continuing to tolerate an aggressive North Korea. Firstly, it wants to keep a strategic buffer between itself and a US ally as it fears having a close ally of the US directly on its border, should the North Korean regime collapse. Beijing also fears the costs associated with mass refugee flows from North Korea into China if the regime were to collapse or war to start on the Peninsula. Finally, it also fears conflict destabilising the region and impacting on already slowing economic growth at home, as the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party depends on continued economic growth and prosperity. Together, these factors have and will continue to see Beijing seek to shield Pyongyang from the worst of international pressure.
During times of heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, China has sought to appease Washington by agreeing to respond to Pyongyang’s provocations, but have acted to lessen the severity of responses to Pyongyang to prevent the collapse of the regime. For example, one such occasion was in 2003, where then US President George W. Bush having already invaded Afghanistan and preparing to invade Iraq, threatened a military strike if North Korea did not cease its nuclear program. What resulted was China hosting the Six-Party talks only months later, which served to diffuse the situation. Similar responses have also been evident following North Korea’s nuclear tests, where China sought to advocate and lessen the severity of the response and condemnation of Pyongyang by the UN Security council. Arguably, this approach to North Korean provocations still appears to be guiding Beijing’s response as aggressive rhetoric from the US in response to Pyongyang’s provocations of the opening months of 2017, has only seen China implement a suspension on imports of North Korean coal. Some have viewed this coal ban as Beijing reaching the limits of its patience with Pyongyang, and a move to greater cooperation with the US. There is likely some truth to Beijing losing patience with Pyongyang, however a closer look suggests Beijing’s priority is still very much on protecting North Korea. China’s ban on coal imports is of virtually no significance when Chinese businesses are still operating in North Korea and two-way trade between the two countries continues to increase. Rather, Beijing’s coal ban is intended merely to deflect US attention by making China appear to be bringing Pyongyang to heel, but still protecting the survival of the regime from economic collapse and delaying a US military strike.
Given Beijing’s interests, it appears that the US and the international community will continue to struggle against Beijing’s efforts to shield the North Korean regime from pressure to give up its nuclear weapons. Considering this and with what is at stake if war breaks out, Washington and Seoul with Beijing need to seek to build trust with each other and with Pyongyang. Only then can Washington and Seoul begin to directly address the security concerns which are driving Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.