China's Thinning Patience

First published: 15th August 2017 | Damen J. Cook


The China–North Korea relationship is straining. Chinese patience for antagonistic North Korean behaviour thins with each nuclear weapons test. The past few years have featured increasingly nasty diplomatic scuffles. Promises are being broken, embargoes enacted, concerts cancelled, and half-brothers assassinated. Whether these recent developments indicate merely a rough patch or mark the beginning of a more permanent shift is yet to be seen.


The Board

Observers with even a passing knowledge of East Asian affairs tend to understand the region’s basic alliance structure. The United States and Japan enjoy a strong alliance, as do the United States and South Korea. Japan’s historical tendency to invade Korea has left their relationship rather strained, though it has improved significantly in recent years. China’s growing power and assertiveness put pressure on nearly all of its international relationships. Meanwhile, North Korea gets along with practically nobody at all; proclamations of intense hatred for the United States, Japan, and South Korea are helpfully included in virtually every North Korean press release. China, the pre-eminent emerging power, is North Korea’s only real ally.[1]

That last one might be changing.

Despite its frustrations with North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, China has stood by its little brother for decades. Even a provocative, nuclear-armed ally was preferable to the alternative—an American-aligned Korea, possibly hosting a U.S. military presence, on the Chinese border. Since the Korean War, China has provided North Korea with a great deal of diplomatic cover, economic support, and a steadfast security guarantee.

China would prefer to focus much of its attention towards the south and west, expanding its influence and power in the South China Sea and constructing its New Silk Road. Ideally, East Asia would maintain its shaky status quo in the meanwhile, perhaps until such a time as China has accrued more power and thus enjoys more strategic flexibility on the matter. Unfortunately for the Middle Kingdom, North Korea's nuclear and missile tests demand its attention, periodically forcing China to squander diplomatic capital on behalf of its increasingly belligerent neighbour. This dynamic has irritated China in the past, but Kim Jong-Un's recent intractability has proven positively exasperating. In recent years, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statements have become openly venomous, practically boiling over with frustration. Diplomatic spats, which occur between even the friendliest of nations but are generally kept private, have stepped into public view.


Stranger Things

There is no one single incident that inarguably marks the beginning of this new chill in Sino-DPRK relations. For the purposes of this article and out of frank consideration for its length, let us begin in October 2015.

The New York Times reports that North Korea had assured China in October 2015 that it would stop its nuclear tests. In return, China agreed to send a senior official to a North Korean military parade—partly on the condition that Pyongyang would adhere to its promise to halt its nuclear tests. The diplomat, Liu Yunshan, did attend the parade; nonetheless, North Korea performed another nuclear test three months later—and without notifying China in advance. Chinese diplomats were “furious,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry launched a formal protest against the North’s behaviour immediately.

In December 2015, after the military parade but just prior to the nuclear test, North Korea sent a pop group to perform in Beijing, with Chinese government officials in attendance. Shortly before the band performed, Kim Jong-Un announced that Pyongyang had achieved hydrogen bomb technology, just two months after promising China that North Korea would halt its nuclear tests. Beijing immediately updated the concert’s guest list, with the new attendees of a much lower rank. North Korea sent their band back home immediately. They did not perform. “I know this sounds like a crazy reason to set off a nuclear test,” one American intelligence official said. “But stranger things have provoked North Korean action.” Indeed, while stranger things have provoked North Korea (and perhaps—perhaps—this band incident was the straw that broke this camel’s back), North Korea was probably already at least strongly considering its January 2016 test by this point. Still, the concert was intended in part to be a gesture of goodwill between friendly nations. Changing the guest list at the last minute was a fairly public (albeit decidedly diplomatic) slap in the face; North Korea did not turn the other cheek.

China’s condemnation of the January 2016 nuclear test was the harshest yet. In her statement, Chinese spokeswoman Hua Chunying pointedly reminded North Korea that it had already made a public commitment to denuclearization and that its nuclear program faces “widespread opposition from the international community.” The state-owned People’s Daily newspaper then ran an article by the Community Party School’s North Korea expert Zhang Liangui. In it, Mr. Liangui called for stricter sanctions enforcement, noting that “Sanctions against North Korea have not actually been strictly enforced. North Korea can still get some resources and wealth through various channels.” Generally speaking, China prefers not to publicly threaten its allies with punitive economic measures. Here, it made an exception—the first of several.

Undeterred by the Foreign Ministry’s fury or the People’s Daily’s threats, North Korea tested key long-range missile technology just one month later, in February 2016. China's frustration was palpable. After five days—plenty of time to reconsider any stinging rhetoric—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly called for stronger UNSC resolutions to make North Korea “pay the necessary price and show [North Korea that] there are consequences for its behaviour.” Though this again constituted some of the strongest rhetoric to date, the United States was taking a harder line than China in the UN negotiations. The United States pushed for a wide range of hard-hitting sanctions, but China emphasized that any international punishment ought to be solely focused on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Although China’s public rebukes had sharpened, the Middle Kingdom still hesitated to bring the hammer down on its ally.[2]

Additionally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the DPRK’s ambassador to protest the February 7th missile test, a distinctly public demonstration of disapproval. Chinese officials can communicate with their North Korean counterparts through a variety of private means. Summoning the North’s ambassador was a signal to other audiences: the United States and its allies, yes, but also an increasingly frustrated Chinese public.


They’ve Had It Up To Here

Much of the Chinese public’s irritation with Kim Jong-Un is likely an organic, understandable reaction to North Korean behaviour. However, in some cases the Chinese government has actively fomented resentment towards the North Korean regime.

Following the January 2016 nuclear test, the Chinese Foreign Ministry publicly expressed concern about radioactive fallout in areas near the North’s test site. This concern appears to have trickled down to ordinary citizens. Chinese citizens near the border with North Korea told the New York Times that the possibility of radioactive air pollution worried them, and hoped their government would prevent future tests.

Perhaps the most consequential example of Chinese discontent is that the Chinese government has stepped aside and allowed its citizens to ridicule the North Korean regime on the internet. Chinese social media users severely mock and criticize North Korea generally and Kim Jong-Un personally. Insulting political cartoons of Kim Jong-Un go viral as Chinese netizens grow ever more exasperated with Pyongyang’s behaviour. Weibo — China’s version of Twitter — contains numerous posts referring to “Kim the Fat” as a thug and comparing North Korea to a virus. It may be tempting to dismiss this evidence as angry internet hounds screaming into the void. Indeed, the opinions of the Chinese populace do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chinese Communist Party (by any means), and ordinary Chinese citizens have miniscule influence over public policy. However, it is very significant that these comments, political cartoons, and insults are no longer being censored by the Chinese government. Such blatant and cutting rebuke of Pyongyang would very likely not have been tolerated just ten years ago.


Spring 2017: Diplomacy Sans Gloves

This year’s round of spring tensions featured some of China’s strongest, most openly aggressive behaviour to date. On February 11th, 2017, North Korea tested its newest medium-range missile, the Pukguksong-2, as U.S. President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe dined together in Washington. Two days later, North Korean agents brazenly assassinated Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur’s airport. Western, Japanese, and South Korean analysts and pundits immediately evoked a well-worn phrase: China could do more.

They did.

Not one week later, China announced a total suspension of coal imports from North Korea. (For context, coal has accounted for “34 to 40 percent” of North Korean exports in recent years, the vast majority purchased by China.) Punitive measures like this are usually met with appropriate suspicion; China is notorious for its arbitrary enforcement of UN sanctions against North Korea, adhering to its own interests and whims rather than the letter of UN Security Council resolutions. However, the New York Times reported two months later that this particular sanction appears to have stuck. Coal imports from North Korea were down 51.6 percent in 2017’s first quarter.

Japanese broadcaster TBS reported that on April 18th, North Korea warned China that it would conduct another nuclear test on April 20th. Note that this notification in itself represents deference to China’s fury at being caught unawares in January 2016. China no doubt appreciated the warning, and reciprocated accordingly: conduct another nuclear test, and your land and sea borders will be forcibly closed. On April 20th, referencing the heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, President Trump noted “some very unusual moves” from the Chinese government. According to TBS, China quickly passed the information to the United States, which shared the warning with Japan. TBS, a mainstream Japanese media outlet, quotes unnamed diplomatic sources within the Japanese government. I cannot independently confirm their narrative, but Yonhap News Agency — one of the most reliable Korean news sources — deems the story “convincing.”

Most recently, April and May have featured a remarkable, increasingly vitriolic dialogue between the Korean Central News Agency and the Chinese Global Times. Both news outlets are state-owned. To quickly summarize: the Global Times warned on April 5th that China has its own “bottom line” that it is all too willing to enforce; KCNA warned of “catastrophic” (in one editorial) and “grave consequences” (in another) to Chinese-Korean relations if China continues “dancing to the tune [of the United States].” Most recently, China’s Global Times newspaper deemed KCNA’s latest editorial “nothing more than a hyper-aggressive piece completely filled with nationalistic passion.” The tit-for-tat editorials make for some astounding reading, and represent one of the most salient examples of worsening relations on the peninsula.


Still an Ally, At Least For Now

To be sure, China still behaves like an ally in many ways. Inertia—bureaucratic, diplomatic, or otherwise—ought never to be underestimated. Though they shut down coal imports in February and threatened to close the borders entirely in April, China still serves as North Korea’s sole economic lifeline. Chinese trade with North Korea increased by 37% for the first quarter of 2017 (compared with the first quarter of 2016). Nearly 90% of North Korea’s trade is with its western neighbour. The North Korean regime exists because China allows it to exist.

Even after the February 2016 long-range missile test that deeply rankled Beijing, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei advised all parties to “Maintain restraint, proceed cautiously, and avoid successively escalating tensions.” “Maintain” was an interesting and telling word choice, as it implied that North Korea had hitherto been exercising some degree of restraint. As Beijing does not actually consider North Korea restrained—and has, in other forums, quite clearly conveyed as much—this rhetoric demonstrated a continued willingness to provide Pyongyang with diplomatic cover.

Yet Chinese frustration mounts unabated: last month, the state-owned Global Times threatened to restrict North Korean oil trade and support a new round of unprecedentedly harsh UN sanctions if the DPRK did not improve its behaviour. Private, polite cajoling is what allies do; publicly threatening to cripple a nation’s energy supply is decidedly unfriendly.

Observers of the Asia-Pacific know that its geopolitical structure is changing. China is rising hard and fast, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is advancing rapidly (if not necessarily steadily), and the United States’ commitment to the region is in question. Nearby states are still adapting.

Another tectonic shift—the collapse of a longstanding alliance—may not necessarily be in the offing, per se. China still prefers an unpredictable, frustrating “ally” on its border than an American ally hosting U.S. military personnel. But China has a well-demonstrated preference for realpolitik. North Korea should take note of China’s Global Times when it warns that China’s friendship with North Korea was predicated on shared interests, and subject to change accordingly.

“The past friendship between the two was the result of Northeast Asian geopolitics in the last century. It also fitted the national interests of the two countries at that time. The current bilateral relationship should be a normal country-to-country one first, and they can form a close friendship based on that. But the precondition is that China's national interests shall not be violated and Beijing shall not pay the price for Pyongyang's extreme policies.”


[1] Malaysia and North Korea once enjoyed a relatively friendly relationship. I would expect that, following the brazen assassination of Kim Jong-Nam in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government would shy away from the “ally” label. Similarly, Russia and Iran have at times benefited from their respective relationships with North Korea. However, these relationships are defined mostly by a sporadic series of symbiotic transactions rather than numerous overlapping interests, treaties, mutual respect, or a sense of closeness between the populations or governments.

[2] China prefers to carefully manipulate the economic pressure on North Korea as circumstances develop. If China wants to deter or coerce certain North Korean behavior, it is much easier for China to simply restrict or increase the flow of goods at their border than to repeal an international sanctions regime.

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