Over the past few years, tension has been mounting on the Korean Peninsula and has escalated since Donald Trump took over as the US president. The new US administration has pushed North Korea’s nuclear issue to the top of its foreign policy agenda and declared that the era of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang is over.
This development once again highlighted China’s policy toward its neighboring country of North Korea. Indeed, many Western observers still believe that Beijing continues to see North Korea as more of a strategic asset than a liability. In their view, the Chinese see the country as a security buffer against the US military presence in South Korea, a source of cheap raw materials, a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Japan and, most importantly, a way to hedge against the existence of a united and pro-Western Korea.
Nevertheless, China sees most of these “accusations” as politically motivated or, at best, devoid of deep understanding of the complex situation in the Korean Peninsula. It is no secret that North Korea is currently heavily dependent on its trade with Beijing, however, the Chinese argue that basic trade is essential for the lives of millions of citizens in North Korea. Importantly, trade between both countries does not exceed $5-6 billion at most, a very modest figure for a country that is the world’s second-largest economy with foreign trade close to $4 trillion.
Contrary to popular opinion, China considers North Korea to be a ticking time bomb on its border and has a strong interest in seeing real change in Pyongyang’s behavior. To be sure, Beijing’s worst nightmare includes fears that intensive outside pressure could lead to the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime and cause the influx of millions of North Korean refugees into China, that non-governmental actors could acquire weapons of mass destruction or that the outbreak of a military conflict could drag China into a major war. Therefore, China is trying to balance the implementation of its international obligations while working to prevent the realization of these nightmare scenarios.
Beijing should make the first move by proposing a formula that guarantees the security of the regime in North Korea by lifting the sanctions and re-integrating Pyongyang internationally in return for abandoning its nuclear program.
From Beijing’s perspective, Pyongyang’s provocations undermine China’s national security. The Chinese leadership fears that North Korea’s nuclear program could strengthen the position of “hawks” in South Korea and Japan who advocate military confrontation or seek to develop nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrence. Importantly, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests have already strengthened the US determination to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea. The deployment of this system is strongly opposed by China as the country considers it a serious threat to its security and believes that it limits its strategic offensive capabilities.
Although Beijing has announced its willingness to cooperate with the US to reach a peaceful solution to the issues in the Korean Peninsula, it has explicitly said this depends on the cooperation of all concerned parties, not only China. To be sure, many Chinese still see the US policy toward North Korea as designed to strengthen Washington’s alliances with South Korea and Japan, which are ultimately aimed at containing China. Importantly, many Chinese experts believe that the US policy toward North Korea may be aimed at regime change rather than stopping the nuclear program.
From the Chinese point of view, these concerns may be Pyongyang’s main motive for developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the US. Indeed, the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman made it clear a few days ago by saying that if his country was not armed with “the powerful nuclear force,” the US would have “committed, without hesitation, the same … aggression act in Korea as it committed against other countries.”
In this context, China has long insisted that sanctions must be accompanied by dialogue and consultation. This could take the form of revived Six-Party Talks — including the US, China, Russia, North Korea and Japan — which broke down in 2009 over Pyongyang’s insistence on conducting further nuclear tests.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed this sentiment while addressing the UN Security Council Ministerial Meeting on Non-Proliferation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on April 28, 2017, saying: “The use of force does not resolve differences and will only lead to larger disasters … Dialogue and negotiation also represent the sensible choice for all parties.” The Chinese leadership may pin some hope on the upcoming presidential election in South Korea on May 9. With a liberal victory looking incrementally likely, this could lead to a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea, which in turn may ease tensions in the region.
However, the dilemma facing everyone is that the status quo has become increasingly unsustainable. Consequently, China should make the first move by proposing a formula that guarantees the security of the regime in North Korea by lifting the sanctions and re-integrating Pyongyang internationally in return for abandoning its nuclear program. Otherwise, North Korea will remain a ticking time bomb that may explode in the face of all.
• Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He can be reached on Twitter @nasertamimi.