China Is Flunking Its Most Important Geopolitical Test

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China cannot keep dangling the bait of “cooperation” on North Korea’s threat and expect the world to bite.

The National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, Matt Pottinger, also warned that the DPRK regime might pose a threat, not only to bolster its power but also as blackmail against the Republic of Korea to achieve ambitious objectives, which include coercive unification of the Korean Peninsula and coercive pressure against the United States to leave the peninsula and abandon alliances.

China has Power to Stop North Korea if Willing

Given the U.S. pressure, particularly in April, a PRC official who is chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, Fu Ying, argued that China strongly opposes nuclear proliferation, lacks leverage and stands for dialogue to address the problem (i.e., not sanctions).

In fact, China has a record of increasing incremental economic, maritime law-enforcement, military and other coercive pressure against other countries to advance China’s goals. China’s proactive “salami slicing” is salient in the South China Sea, where the PRC claimed to “respond” to perceived “provocations” against China and then controlled land features in a fait accompli to establish a new status quo. In his testimony to Congress, Admiral Harris pointed out that “China has fundamentally altered the physical and political landscape in the South China Sea through large-scale land reclamation and by militarizing these reclaimed features.”

Is China meeting or failing the Trump administration’s test to address the DPRK’s urgent threat? If China pursues incremental, purposeful pressure against the DRPK, what would be the indicators?

China could use its Coast Guard against North Korean shipping. China could deny use of its ports, airfields and airspace to North Korean ships and planes. Under warnings, PRC citizens could leave the DPRK, undermining “business as usual.” One report suggested that there was such a warning, at least to Korean-Chinese residents in Pyongyang. China could warn against nuclear contamination of the environment for its people to evacuate North Korea or to demand a stop to its nuclear testing. Similar to reported pressure against Taiwan, China could discourage tour groups from traveling to North Korea.

China could completely ban the import of North Korean coal and other commodities that earn foreign exchange. China reportedly halted the import of North Korean coal in February for the rest of 2017 in accordance with a 2016 UNSC resolution. However, that promise came only after importing coal from North Korea worth $1 billion in 2015 and continuing imports in 2016. Moreover, by April, at least one of China’s ports later allowed the docking of North Korean ships loaded with coal. Despite the supposed stop to importing coal, China’s trade with North Korea actually increased 37.4 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared with that period in 2016. China seems to be continuing a pattern of spotty enforcement of sanctions, even those under the authority of the UNSC with China’s vote in favor.

China could impose an oil embargo against North Korea, which is dependent on China’s oil. If China hints at short-term suspensions of oil supplies, lasting measures would be more effective. The United States has known that China’s oil is the key to leverage. Toward the end of the Obama administration in early January 2017, John Kerry, who was secretary of state at the time, stated that “China provides 100 percent of the fuel that goes to North Korea.” He added that “every airplane, every truck, every car that moves in North Korea gets its fuel from China.”

Kerry also said that Beijing is the “facilitator” for Pyongyang’s banking system and commerce. China could increase the isolation of North Korea’s financial transactions from the international system. China could stop the flow of North Korean guest workers.

China could again hint at ending its mutual-aid treaty with North Korea. An editorial in the official Global Times hinted at Beijing’s difficulty with the treaty, stating that North Korea’s nuclear programs have “jeopardized China’s national security.” China’s security authorities could deny replacement of equipment to North Korea’s security apparatus for internal suppression. China’s People’s Liberation Army likewise could deny military vehicles and other equipment to North Korea’s military.

In short, China’s claims are not true. China does have overwhelming leverage over North Korea. China has chosen coercive tactics, even unilaterally, against other countries. If China fails the latest test now, then it is not true that China effectively seeks to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. China cannot keep dangling the bait of “cooperation” on North Korea’s threat and expect the world to bite.