Sanctions Diplomacy: The American Factor in contemporary China-North Korea Relations

Written by Tom Fowdy.

Misleadingly attributed as allies, China’s contemporary relationship with Pyongyang is rooted in its strategic value against the United States. As North Korea’s provocative behaviour stifles China’s regional ambitions by inviting a greater U.S presence into North East Asia, the Xi Jinping premiership has sought to navigate between the problematic pressures of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, seeking to satisfy American calls for sanctions against the DPRK and take a harder line, whilst nevertheless resisting efforts which could amount to a feared collapse of the regime and pushing to bring both parties to the table. As a result, China’s relationship with North Korea is increasingly complicated; it is not one of a simplistic “friendship” or “hostility” for it cannot be separated from the factor of the U.S.

Once attributed by Mao Zedong as being “like lips and teeth”, China’s relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or “North Korea” have come under significant strain in the past few years. With Kim Jong Un’s accelerated efforts in nuclear and missile testing against the will of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions, tensions in North East Asia have increased. China itself, consistently opposed to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, has found itself under significant pressure from the United States and its allies, who argue that as the isolated state’s largest economic partner, it has a “responsibility” to take a hard line against it. Such pressure has also come repeatedly from the President of United States himself, who has regularly made both complementary and critical tweets concerning China’s efforts.

As tensions soared in the latter half of 2017, Beijing appeared to take a harder line against the DPRK agreeing to several tough UNSC resolutions, banning North Korea’s coal and mineral exports, as well as agreeing to a cap on oil and liquified petroleum products. Then, in September, it readily claimed it had ended all banking transactions concerning North Korea. Likewise, an order of closure of North Korean firms in the country was also reported. Such moves have lead some commentators to argue that despite longstanding fears of regime collapse influencing China’s approach to the DPRK, Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang have declined to such a degree that they have now reached “high point” of cooperation with the United States. However, these assumptions are based upon a misinterpretation of Chinese diplomacy. Whilst undoubtedly, China’s anger with Pyongyang has increased, nevertheless, the newest moves represent not an abandonment of the DPRK regime entirely, but an attempt to balance between its existing strategy and American pressure, aiming to bring both sides to the negotiating table, demonstrating complicated, rather than completely deteriorating relations.

Firstly, the biggest factor in China’s attitudes towards North Korea is not North Korea as an end in and of itself, but the inseparable involvement of the United States that comes with it. This has remained consistent, albeit at varying levels, since the end of the Korean War. Due to the continued presence of the United States in South Korea, North Korea has served the purpose of being a strategic buffer state against U.S forces there. For China, its continued existence has thus been beneficial. However, when North Korea’s actions become problematic to the extent that the United States is able to justify increasing military presence in the region, then it becomes troublesome for Beijing.

Significantly, this was observed when the United States deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea, a system which could be used against China, souring relations with Seoul. Consequently, repeated North Korean provocations have led to an increased U.S military build-up and emphasis within the region, tying into what Beijing understands as a wider strategy of containment against them. This, combined with Trump’s repeated threats of war against North Korea and his earlier threats of “trade wars” against China, have contributed to Beijing perceiving Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions as a threat to their own regional ambitions and security. Thus, rather than being in harmony with the United States, Beijing is compelled to take action regarding North Korea to restrain the United States.

As a result, aiming to defuse tensions and to prevent increased American militarisation in South Korea and Japan, China has taken the route of a harsher line against Pyongyang whilst paying lip service to American calls for harsher measures on North Korea. For example, this has included a notably increased rhetoric from Chinese media and officials in favour of sanctions. In April 2017, the state run Global Times threatened an oil embargo against the DPRK. Then, following the September Nuclear test, foreign minister Wang Yi publicly commented that China would support new sanctions against North Korea, stating later that “China would be prepared to pay the price” for such measures. Furthermore, as noted above with the banking and venture bans, the Communist Party has likewise aimed to achieve maximum publicity from purposeful announcements concerning the implementation of sanctions, other examples including: the cessation of North Korean coal imports, seafood, and textiles. The heavy emphasis given to the rhetoric of such actions and sanction implementations suggest that its intended audience is that of the United States and its allies attempting to consolidate the image that China is getting “tough” on Pyongyang.

However, in the process of doing this, China is neither openly submitting to U.S foreign policy nor abandoning its long-standing approach of avoiding North Korean collapse. Rather, it is simultaneously attempting to bring North Korea to the negotiating table by watering down tougher U.S measures, whilst using the sanctions as a means of seeking concessions from America regarding their military presence. For example, whilst condemning North Korea and implementing United Nations Resolutions, Beijing has repeatedly called for dialogue rather than confrontation to resolve the issue. In tandem with this, it has requested the United States suspend its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. Likewise, beyond the UNSC, it has remained consistent in its opposition to unilateral American measures against North Korea, some which have targeted Chinese institutions. These aspects considered, China is attempting to moderate the American approach whilst trying to force Pyongyang to the table, in harmony with its standard approach of keeping North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S.

Therefore, in conclusion, China’s relationship with Pyongyang is not one of hostility, or of any symbolic “alliance” or friendship, but one of increasing complications that cannot be separated from the prism of China-U.S relations. As the crisis on the Korean peninsula has continued to escalate, Beijing is forced to reconcile between its consistent goal of ensuring the survival of Kim Jong Un’s regime, whilst simultaneously preventing its actions from justifying an increased U.S presence in Asia, which has been utilised by the Trump administration as part of a wider Anti-China strategy. As a result, China has taken the gamble of agreeing to harder sanctions against its neighbour in order to bring the DPRK to the negotiating table, whilst seeking to moderate the approach of the nation it sees as the greater threat, thus attempting to balance the conflicting pressures.

Tom Fowdy is a postgraduate student of Chinese Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. He previously graduated from Durham University, as well as having spent a year at the University of Hong Kong. Image Credit: CC by (stephan)/Flickr.

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