You are here

China's Approach to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • October 31, 2006

    China's cautious approach to defusing the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis underscores the dilemmas that exist in its difficult relationship with North Korea on the one hand and its interests with respect to the United States on the other. What worries China more is North Korea's ambition and intention to further continue its nuclear programme. Moreover, China faces a daunting task in tackling the increasing American pressure to intensify actions against North Korea as per the UNSC resolutions. There is no doubt that China is weighing tough measures to prohibit North Korea from further nuclear tests. But the recent inspection of cargo trucks bound for North Korea by Chinese customs inspectors have raised doubts about whether China would enforce the inspections in accordance to UNSC norms. In a reply to international observers on the allegations that China is not following UNSC resolution norms for "inspections", China's UN ambassador Wang Guangya commented: "I think different countries will do it different ways." This statement clearly shows the ambivalence in the Chinese approach to the North Korean crisis. Because, on October 15, it was with the consent of China that the UNSC passed a resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea after it was modified and redefined to eliminate the explicit mention of "military enforcement".

    A careful analysis of the initial Chinese response to the North Korean nuclear test reveals that it was strong though typically cautious. In an immediate response to the October 9 nuclear test, Wang Guangya said that the Security Council must deliver "punitive actions" against North Korea, but it should be a "firm, constructive, appropriate but prudent response". Chinese reservations on this UNSC resolution are an interesting aspect of this episode relating to international reactions to the nuclear test. China made it very clear that it is "firmly against" military actions and has been very skeptical about the provisions of the resolutions which mention "cargo going into and out of North Korea." This measured response reflects the cautious approach of Chinese diplomacy. It is interesting to note that on the one hand, China wants to maintain good relations - and at least some influence over the North Korea, while on the other hand, it wants to prevent Kim Jong Il from triggering a nuclear conflict on China's border.

    After the nuclear test, the Chinese government took a firm stand that any military action against North Korea is "unimaginable". It was also against a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter since such a resolution, according to China, would contain a military trigger. But this initial cautious response reflects the same array of interests that drives the overall policy approach to the Korean peninsula that it has pursued since the end of the cold war. The weight of these Chinese interests, which reflects serious considerations for PRC security and economic prosperity, make China the most important player in the Korean peninsula.

    Given these fundamental interests, 'peace and stability' has been the key in China's stance on the North Korean crisis, and this priority forms the baseline in Beijing's recent official statements on the North Korean nuclear test. In the service of these priorities, China has pressed two tactics consistently on North Korean issues: first, no military action against North Korea and a peaceful diplomatic solution to the crisis; and second, return to the Six-Party talks again. By taking this stand, China hopes to convey a message to international watchers that as a P-5 nation it shares the international community's denuclearization goal of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner. But in reality, China fears that a war between North Korea and the United States will hamper its own economy and security. Earlier at regular intervals, the Chinese government had opposed any kind of sanctions on North Korea because it feared that such a course would apart from bringing about instability in the region would also damage the nascent process of market reforms in, as well as its own economic relations with, North Korea. China is North Korea's chief supplier of food, energy and financial aid. In addition, Beijing does not want to see a humanitarian crisis in North Korea as a result of sanctions, for it is likely to send a lot of refugees into the northern part of China. Moreover, from a broader perspective, it has reasons to be concerned about its own quest for reunification with Taiwan, human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, given increasing Western focus on issues relating to humanitarian crises.

    From the bilateral perspective, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson had said in response to the test that "this will no doubt have a negative impact on China and North Korean's relations". Though at the moment when sanctions are already imposed it seems that it is a very difficult stage in the Sino-North Korean relationship, in future one can expect the relationship between the two old communist allies to remain as close as ever. At the moment it can be said that North Korea is acting assertively in its relationship with China. From the Chinese perspective, it may even be able to afford to live with a nuclear and powerful North Korea, because it is an important weapon against the United States. China, however, is concerned about Pyongyang's military moves starting an arms race in the region, which will give enough scope for Japan to strengthen its military. Another important aspect that has become a major concern for the Chinese after the sanctions is their nearly two-billion-dollar annual bilateral trade and investment with North Korea, which is clearly the most visible form of leverage that they possess to end the deadlock in the current crisis.

    Given the Chinese interests on the Korean Peninsula sketched above, Beijing's cautious approach to the current crisis should not be surprising at all. It is in China's interest that the North Korean nuclear crisis is resolved through peaceful diplomacy and to maintain and preserve stability on the Korean Peninsula. On October 12, 2006, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Liu Jianchao commented in a press conference that "…the measures to be taken should be helpful to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintain the peace and stability on the peninsula, and resume the Six-Party Talks". Added to this, on October 17, when US satellite images reported preparations for a second nuclear test by North Korea, the Chinese foreign ministry expressed its concerns by stating that "We hope North Korea will adopt a responsible attitude ... and come back to resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation instead of taking any actions that may further escalate or worsen the situation". The above-mentioned statements clearly show china's grave concerns and its cautious diplomatic approach. In fact, China's interest in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula rests on the concern that a regime collapse in North Korea will have a serious impact on China. The Chinese are especially worried by the US military presence in South Korea, and in the wake of the North's collapse US influence could well spread up to the Yalu River on China's Southern border. At the moment, it is clear that the effective enforcement of UN sanctions depends a lot on China.