Quiet Diplomacy

Beijing is under a lot of pressure to stop defending North Korea. But is it lashing Pyongyang behind the scenes?

On your sixtieth anniversary, you are supposed to give a diamond. For China and North Korea's (DPRK) sixtieth anniversary, China got another nuclear test. After all the indignities Kim Jong-il has heaped on China, it is now plausible that the North's nuclear test, missile launches and departure from the 1953 armistice will cause irreparable harm to a relationship that was once characterized "as close as lips and teeth."

North Korea's most recent provocations immediately spawned discussion at the UN Security Council, making more sanctions likely-though it is an open question whether "new" sanctions will be any more effective than the old ones. All the "P-5" Security Council members agree that something has to be done, and China is leaning towards voting in favor of sanctions so long as they are "reasonable." In lieu of coercion, Chinese experts are publicly expressing their country's outrage at North Korea's actions in blogs, newspapers and on TV in an effort to assure the United States, Japan and South Korea that Beijing takes these provocations seriously and will not give the DPRK a pass on their indiscretions without a severe tongue lashing.

Unfortunately for China, they find themselves in an awkward position with few viable options, just as the United States does. While Beijing might have more leverage over Pyongyang than Washington does, China feels it is not as much as others might think. Many Chinese experts are frustrated that they have so few viable options to influence North Korea, but remain reluctant to employ the most coercive ones. Negotiations have yielded few results and are increasingly seen as a way to reduce tensions rather than achieving the stated goal of preventing nuclear weapons from becoming ensconced on the peninsula. Sanctions might seem reasonable to the United States, though China does not share this view, putting them in the increasingly uncomfortable position of diluting UN sanctions language once again.

This frustrates many in the international community, because China could turn off the DPRK's supply of emergency food and oil, close the border to trade, and therefore put real pressure on the North Koreans to choose between nukes and food. To Beijing this is an unpalatable option for a number of reasons. First, cutting off its aid channels would likely result in North Korea cutting communications with China, reducing what influence it does have. Perhaps Chinese leaders are listening to their own constituents' concerns about what impact economic sanctions might have on development prospects for China's northeast, where frontier communities are dependent on cross-border trade with North Korea.

China does not want the DPRK to descend into chaos due to a complete lack of food or power. Collapse of political and social control in the North would lead to a surge of refugees or bandits foraging in China's fragile northeast provinces. Furthermore, collapse presents a number of strategic and tactical scenarios that each cause worry in Beijing, including loose nuclear material and potential reunification of the peninsula under South Korea's leadership, thereby diminishing Beijing's influence and preferential access. As if those nightmare scenarios are not discomforting enough to China, the prospect of nuclear weapons becoming a permanent feature of the peninsula presents an even worse slew of potential strategic developments-namely, a justification for Japan to build its military and possibly even its own nuclear deterrent; U.S.-backed missile-defense systems that undermine China's own limited deterrent; and the certainty that U.S. military forces will remain in the western Pacific for another century.

China now has to calculate which is the lesser of many evils. The "China-DPRK Friendship Year" might be the first casualty. Beijing has reportedly cut off official contacts with North Korean functionaries, though following its preference to engage in quiet diplomacy over sensitive issues, other inducements and reprimands might be taking place behind the scenes. Chinese banks in Liaoning and Jilin provinces might quietly cease to transfer funds to and from the DPRK. "Technical problems" might prevent shipments of oil and food from leaving Chinese terminals as they have periodically over the past three years. Chinese leaders know the effectiveness of these discreet, targeted sanctions and will quite possibly wield them again. The real question is, as China pursues its flexible, secret, unilateral course of coercion against the DPRK, what terms are they demanding; will they address the root causes of the crisis, or is their best hope more negotiations?

 

Drew Thompson is Director of China Studies and the Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.