On 18 February, the Chinese government suspended coal imports from North Korea (DPRK) in compliance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on the ‘hermit kingdom’ due to its nuclear weapons testing. The ban follows North Korea’s ballistic missile test a week prior, which, combined with its previous testing of land and sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), indicates the nation’s growing long-range strike capabilities. China’s import ban, which will remain in effect until 2018, could further weaken an already moribund North Korean economy. Coal comprises up to 40 per cent of North Korea’s exports to China, its biggest trade partner. Declining trade could trigger another famine – North Korean leadership has warned of a food crisis since March 2016.
China has been North Korea’s benefactor since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many Western analysts have argued that Chinese cooperation is integral to eliminating the DPRK’s nuclear program, and in moderating the state’s notoriously erratic foreign policy. Combined with Chinese support for other UN sanctions, its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear testing, and other diplomatic spats, the recent ban could indicate growing daylight between the DPRK and its benefactor. By encouraging a rupture through conciliatory Asian policy, the US and China can achieve the mutual goals of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and preventing another Korean war. More broadly, through a Kissingerian ‘linkage’ approach, the US can settle other outstanding issues and obtain a broader détente with China.
US President Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and potentially confrontational Asian policy undermine this approach. Trump has attacked China’s over its trade policies, appointed vocal China critic Peter Navarro as the director of the National Trade Council, and pledged to rebuild the US military, particularly by expanding the Navy and Marine Corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US would prevent China from accessing and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea, a policy that could lead to war. Analysts who hold a conciliatory position deem Trump’s policy dangerous, not in the least because it prevents cooperation on the North Korean issue.
The belief that China and the US have a mutual interest in stabilising and denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is not borne out by Chinese foreign policy actions. China is pursing a confrontational policy towards the US and its allies. Its island building campaign manipulates international law to allow it to infringe upon the rights of American regional partners, and gain control of sea-lanes that transport half of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage. Its military developments counter American naval and aerial capabilities by using long-range missiles, surface combatants, and even aircraft carriers to deny the US access to the Western Pacific. Chinese media released a video depicting a Chinese attack on a navy strikingly similar to the American Pacific fleet. China has also practices long-range missile strikes against US bases, explicitly simulating an attack on Kadena Air Base, the US’ installation in Okinawa, Japan.
China has not hidden its strategic intentions – even its accommodating rhetoric demands its recognition as a great power with the Western Pacific as its sphere of influence. China’s partnership with North Korea therefore serves it in several ways.
First, nuclear or otherwise, North Korea gives China a way to attack the First Island Chain, which runs from Japan through the western Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Defending the ‘island chains’ are presumed as the core of America’s strategy in a conflict with China. North Korea’s position gives China a launching point for an offensive against the First Island Chain, helping it capture strategic chokepoints in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Second, North Korea serves as a buffer against American forces. Today, nearly 30,000 US soldiers are stationed in South Korea (ROK)– in perspective, this force is only 10,000 smaller than the planned NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in Europe. Rather than facing this threat directly, China can rely on North Korea’s 1.19 million active duty soldiers and its 7.7 million reservists to deter American forces. North Korea has prompted missile defence deployments to Asia, a move counter to Chinese strategic interest. However, nuclear or otherwise, America’s forces are unlikely to depart from the Korean peninsula. Moreover, in any conflict with China, the US will need to defeat North Korea, changing American operational planning and forcing the US to commit resources to the peninsula despite South Korea’s substantial military. Thus, it benefits China to retain North Korea as a strategic buffer.
Third, alienating North Korea is difficult. The inertia of America’s partnership with South Korea, the ROK’s economic utility, and reunification difficulties makes Washington unlikely to view Pyongyang as a partner despite abrasive Chinese policy. Russia could become the DPRK’s benefactor, but such a move would cause friction between the two countries when the Kremlin needs to mitigate Sino-Russian conflicts of interest, particularly in Central Asia. China can therefore press North Korea without fear of a major rupture.
Fourth, and most importantly, North Korea’s erratic behaviour allows China to mask its true intentions. China has dubious history of enforcing North Korean sanctions. Beijing backed UNSC Resolution 2270, passed in March 2016, which introduced additional inspection measures and export bans. However, UNSC 2270 includes an exemption, spearheaded by China, that permits transactions for the ‘people’s livelihood.’ This appears reasonable considering North Korea’s economic instability. However, North Korea’s centralised economic system prevents demarcation between funds and industries used for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) development and other sectors, while its economic difficulties arguably make all industries critical to the people’s livelihood. In addition, China’s verification methods are suspect– it permits firms to self-verify imports, allowing the government to ignore transactions in contravention of UN sanctions. UNSC 2321, adopted in November 2016, contains the same exemption, facilitating the same strategy.
With this diplomatic slight of hand, China encourages groups that see North Korea as a convergence point between the US and China, which then attack American foreign policy in the Pacific. In reality, China has not changed its broader strategy, and continues to undermine the US’ position. Its apparent compliance with international law enables it to challenge America’s legal position – by pressing China despite its implementation of UN sanctions, China can depict the US as the aggressive power, and gain unwarranted legitimacy. China can modulate its policy towards the DPRK as it sees fit with little effect on its aims, but with legal and hard power windfalls.
Alluding to major prizes while remaining light on specifics is a classic diplomatic tactic – it obfuscates goals while preserving long-term objectives, and can paint the aggressor as the victim. In 1866, Otto von Bismarck, Prussian Ministerpräsident at the time, implied that he would reward France’s neutrality during the Austro-Prussian War with territorial concessions. After Prussia’s victory, Bismarck changed his position, denying Louis-Napoleon any prizes. This strategy allowed Bismarck to portray Napoleon’s military expansion and desire to gain a buffer with Prussia as aggressive, giving it greater international support during its war with France in 1870. Napoleon mistook rhetoric and obfuscation for policy change, with disastrous results.
America must be similarly cautious. If its leaders conflate China’s ambiguous North Korean policy with a broader shift in aims, they will leave the US open to increased Chinese aggression. Interest, not rhetorical flourishes, should dictate policy analysis. Ignore false carrots, observe visible sticks.