North Korea’s latest nuclear test not only riles the West, but has severely damaged ties with Beijing: China’s response will be telling for future ties.
North Korea’s latest announcement concerning the alleged detonation of a hydrogen bomb as thrown another wrench into the Six Party Talks. Pyongyang capitalizes on the shock factor of these statements to catch other parties off guard, thus demonstrating a flagrant disregard for de-escalation efforts on the Korean peninsula. While the United States, Japan, and South Korea have issued their usual statements on the matter, it is valuable to look into China’s reaction.
China is usually seen in the West as being Pyongyang’s enabler and confidant: the Sino–Korean Friendship Bridge spans the Yalu River border between the two states. China fought beside North Korean forces during the Korean War, thus facilitating the creation of a divided Korea. The two countries share a long Cold War legacy, ally status, and China is North Korea’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching $6.4 billion in 2014. Consequently, the anger and displeasure coming out of Beijing is interesting for a number of reasons.
Bridge over troubled waters
Despite their close historic ties, China was not informed of this latest weapon’s test beforehand, a major snub by Pyongyang. The fact that the test occurred just 80km from the Chinese border has further torpedoed relations between the two countries: the explosion created a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, causing schools to be evacuated in Yanji, China.
Panicked residents of Yanji also quickly went online expressing worry about potential fallout and other threats. China has sent environmental personnel with air quality monitors to the border, and will summon North Korea’s ambassador for a formal complaint in the coming days.
Aside from causing regional and domestic instability, China is furious that Pyongyang went against early promises to avoid further nuclear tests: Chinese attendance to the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling party in October was partly conditional on a moratorium on future tests, according to U.S diplomats.
Xi Jinping has admitted in private talks that he does not have a warm relationship with Kim Jong Un, a fact that has led to a worsening of bilateral ties. Unlike his father who made many trips to China, Kim Jong Un has not visited the country since ascending to power in 2012. Kim Jong Un also riled China with the surprise purge of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek in 2013, who was a major power broker and close to China.
Xi shifts China’s attitude
Xi has been seeking to bolster the Six Party Talks (which Beijing hosts), by engaging in a charm offensive with North Korea during the last six months. These efforts have been thwarted by this latest nuclear test, causing embarrassment for Xi and leading Chinese to question his stance on the matter.
This marks an evolution in China’s attitude towards North Korea, as previously Beijing tolerated North Korea’s bellicosity, as China itself was an international pariah.
Yet over the last twenty years, Beijing has moved beyond its Cold War thinking, placing greater emphasis on regional stability, and less on playing the ‘North Korea card’ (Beijing being the moderating voice) to counter American influence. Cheng Li, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute notes this change, stating that
“non-proliferation is [China’s] No. 1 concern, rather than the worry of losing bargaining power or leverage to deal with the United States. This is a major change under Xi.”
North Korea’s actions cause another headache for Xi, as they further refocus American attention on Asia. Specifically, such actions merely add further political will in America to bolster its Asian military presence, as well as for Japan to boost defence spending. Both of these trends, while ostensibly a reaction to North Korea, only cause headaches for China. With China trying to assert itself in the East China and South China Seas, heightened American and Japanese presences merely stymie Beijing’s regional ambitions.
Too big to fail
In response to this latest development, China has threatened to place sanctions on North Korea, a potentially devastating scenario for Pyongyang. China can reduce imports of North Korean raw materials, as well as place curbs on Chinese tourism to the country, both presenting major potential revenue losses for the Kim regime. Moreover, Chinese firms are likely to avoid doing business in North Korea, at least in the short to medium term, as the country once again proves itself an unstable investment environment.
While this would be a marked deterioration in ties, Beijing finds itself caught in a bind. If China imposes sanctions it is effectively out of options in dealing with North Korea, for as Cai Jian of Fudan University explains;
“it’s going to be difficult for China to devise the scale of the sanctions: to impose sanctions without creating instability or even leading to the country’s collapse.”
North Korea knows this, and so plays chicken with China, implicitly dangling the threat of its own implosion to defuse any retaliation from China. Instability on the border and a wave of Korean refugees is a nightmare scenario for Beijing in the best of times, but with slowing growth and concerns about internal stability, these fears are all the more intense. While many Chinese view North Korea and its leadership as oddities, they are in favour of Beijing propping up the Kim regime to maintain a buffer zone. In the event of North Korea’s collapse, China is extremely worried that it will have to deal with a sizeable American military force on its very border.
North Korea’s nuclear gamble may have backfired this time, as this latest provocation could well push China further into line with other international powers vis-a-vis Pyongyang.