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China to Act but will Go Slow against North Korea

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 24, 2006

    The North Korean act of conducting an underground nuclear test has exposed the inherent limitations of various international institutions. It has also posed a challenge for the US as to how to make China behave as a responsible 'stakeholder' in international politics. If Beijing could not restrain Kim Jong-Il's regime from flagrantly conducting a nuclear test in disregard of the combined opposition of the international community, Pyongyang has created a complex political atmosphere, which needs China to deliver considerably to bring the current crisis to an end.

    No doubt, North Korea still has more surprises in store for the international community. It already has indicated that it might go for more nuclear tests and Pyongyang has rejected the idea of coming to terms with UN Security Council resolution of October 14, 2006. No matter how scientifically successful the North Korean nuclear test was or whether Pyongyang is capable of mating the weapon with delivery systems, the neighbouring territories in northeast Asia fall well within the range of its already successfully tested missiles. Pyongyang also poses as a dangerous source of nuclear and missile proliferation.

    North Korea clandestinely pursued a nuclear weapons programme for many decades. Despite being a member of the NPT since 1985 and a signatory to the IAEA's fullscope safeguards, which allowed for international inspections to detect diversion of nuclear efforts towards military purposes, North Korea could not be tamed in time. Its withdrawal from the NPT and actual conduct of a nuclear test has exposed the inherent weaknesses of the NPT in the face of non-proliferation challenges. The North Korean defiance occurred when the international community was still grappling with the mystery related to the Pakistan based A.Q. Khan proliferation network, which facilitated the illicit nuclear weapon programmes of NPT members like Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

    The next immediate worry is whether Iran will follow North Korea and make the NPT implode? In reality, the mishandling of the North Korean case is likely to stiffen Tehran's posture. At the same time, Iran would be carefully watching the unfolding events over North Korea. And unlike in the case of the already isolated North Korean regime, Iran's economic stakes are closely linked with many, including EU countries, Japan, Russia and China.

    In the case of North Korea, China holds the largest share of Pyongyang's external trade in terms of both imports and exports, including food and fuel supply. Yet, according to a recent study, China would suffer the least, in comparison with South Korea and Japan, in terms of the direct economic impact of the international fallout of an already impoverished Pyongyang's nuclear test. The instability in the Korean peninsula may well result in capital flight mainly from South Korea and Japan, though this can be effectively regulated. The study, conducted by a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Economics in July 2006, had rightly pointed out that a North Korean test would likely have a negative, though non-catastrophic, economic impact on the region. Even after two weeks of the October 9 test, no significant adverse impact is visible in the region.

    The security implications, however, are immense for North Korea's neighbours, particularly South Korea and Japan. They might review their policy of 'reliance' on the US nuclear security umbrella or being to ponder over an alternative military 'self-reliance' route in the coming years. If Japan opts for developing its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, it would be the last nail in the coffin of NPT. The US could hardly afford to allow this to happen.

    China has shown scant regard in the past for its own NPT commitments though it now gives importance to the NPT regime for political, military and nuclear trade gains flowing from the treaty related international arrangements. China would do its best to join hands with the United States for its own security interest to stop any country in northeast Asia going nuclear, especially Japan.

    But how would China handle the North Korean brinkmanship to prevent the deterioration of regional security or a possible arms race in the future? It is difficult to find a readymade reply. China may opt to play cautiously so as not to outrage its worthy strategic partner, Pyongyang, for otherwise the latter could provoke further instability in the Asian security realm.

    Till now China has attempted to create nuclear and missile armed regional actors against the wishes of the US to keep it perpetually engaged in strategic adjustments with China. Also, by arming North Korea and Pakistan, China kept its potential regional challengers, Japan and India, contained. Particularly, China has long maintained the status quo in North Korea in the hope of using it as a bargaining chip for its interests in Taiwan. In reality, the Chinese efforts towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula have not shown any signs of success so far. China also politically managed not to let North Korea's direct consultations with the US from affecting its leverage over Pyongyang.

    Since North Korea has pulled its nuclear trump, little is left for it to hide except unpredictable dictatorial irrationalities. Chinese policy towards Pyongyang has come under international scrutiny, especially its support for the North Korean regime in the past. The international community expects Beijing to play a responsible role and not to let the crisis worsen further. Any miscalculation in matching the expectations of the international community may now cost China dearly in terms of its economic ties and technology trade with Europe and the US, including the approximately US $100 billion worth investments in Iranian oil and gas resources. In addition, Beijing may face difficulties in stopping consequential militarization in the neighbouring countries, including the potential intensification of American military engagement in Taiwan or elsewhere.

    China will have to face many risks by delaying to respond to North Korean belligerence. Yet, China will be hesitant to lose a longstanding and dependent ally with which it has cultivated a relationship for over five decades with proven strategic dividends. Beijing is likely to cooperate in implementing the UN Security Council resolution against North Korea, though with controlled moderation.