In almost every commentary on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, China’s role is acknowledged as crucial. If China – North Korea’s main ally – decides to put ‘maximum pressure’ on the country by implementing UN sanctions in their letter and spirit, it would be impossible for North Korea to sustain its defiance.
China not only constitute more than 85 per cent of North Korea’s external trade but also shares around 80 per cent of its land border with the country. From the beginning of his term, US President Donald Trump has been trying to bring China on board and work for the denuclearisation of North Korea. Trump and his team have had several rounds of contact with China to convince them that North Korea must be denuclearised and China must cooperate to achieve this goal. Trump has also show encouragement by praising China for any small step aimed at putting pressure on North Korea. However, after a year, the US now seems tired and frustrated.
In recent months, Trump has openly expressed his frustration with China’s secret trade and economic exchanges with North Korea. Now, the US policy has changed from requesting China’s cooperation to naming and shaming and putting pressure on China to do more on the issue. However, the new US policy, like its predecessor, will likely also have limited impact on China’s approach towards North Korea in general and its nuclear and missile programmes in particular.
In fact, China agrees with the US that the North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and its provocative behaviour must be checked. However, to assume that this broad agreement would be sufficient for China to fully contribute to the US plan to deal with North Korea is wishful thinking. China may share with the US a common goal in the denuclearisation of North Korea but there are several other reasons why China’s role will not be as per US expectations.
First, there is a difference in priorities with regard to North Korea’s denuclearisation and survival. For the US, denuclearisation of is of the utmost importance, and North Korea’s survival may be compromised to achieve this goal. On the contrary, for China, North Korea’s survival is primary and even if denuclearisation is not achieved in the short and medium-terms, Beijing will not find losing North Korea as a buffer state an acceptable proposition.
Second, unlike the US, China is against threatening the North Korean regime bilaterally. Trump and his administration have regularly made provocative statements against North Korea and its leader. With US’ anti-missile defence system and all types of war machinery in and around the Korean Peninsula and its regular joint military exercises with South Korea, there is no possibility that North Korea will revise its strong resolve to remain nuclear. In fact, these military developments have further led North Korea to believe that nuclear weapons are its only deterrent against the US’ aggressive intent.
Third, China would like to be the prime-mover in regional politics. If the denuclearisation initiative is seen as being carried out under the leadership of the US, there is less incentive for China to be sufficiently active. China wants a non-nuclear North Korea in its neighbourhood but with itself as the prime-mover.
Fourth, China may think about abandoning North Korea by fully cooperating with international sanctions. However, in return, it would definitely like South Korea to equally distance itself from the US in the region. China would not like to lose an old friend without gaining at least another in return.
Fifth, even though China does not openly recognise it, China has far less leverage over North Korea’s behaviour than popularly believed. North Korea is aware that both countries need each other to serve their national interests and regional equation. North Korea, so far, has used the fact to its advantage and has been able to exercise autonomy in its defence and security policy.
Thus, the belief that that China could be brought on board for a US-initiated strategy to denuclearise North Korea is flawed. Even though there have been signs of a more cooperative China helping implement the UN sanctions on North Korea, and several reports that China-North Korea trade has been shrinking, the reality is much more complex. To be able to bring China along to denuclearise North Korea, the international community and the US must acknowledge these complex realities and refrain from wishful thinking.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS