The Odd Couple: China and North Korea

Is Beijing's calculus towards the hermit kingdom changing? 

Are Beijing and Pyongyang finally on the outs? Recent reports that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not exported any crude oil to North Korea for the last three months certainly raise the possibility.

But hopes of a rift have been dashed before. To assess the situation accurately, one must first understand Chinese security calculations about the Korean peninsula. These calculations are a product of Chinese national interests and concerns of the Chinese Communist Party, all colored with historical and political considerations.

Chinese Concepts of Security

For the PRC, national security is rooted in several “core interests.” These were formally enunciated in 2009 by Senior Councilor for Foreign Affairs Dai Bingguo: The PRC’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.

This characterization highlights that the PRC’s foremost priority is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to retain power. The two pillars of nation and Party are viewed as inseparable. Indeed, a major element of national security is the ability of the Party to “stand up to hostile or meddling powers that might challenge the CCP’s credentials as guardians of China’s international interests.” From the Chinese perspective, national security requires continued CCP rule.

Recent Security Developments

The PRC’s security assessment of Northeast Asia, and especially the Korean peninsula, must reconcile several realities:

·   South Korea (ROK) is a major trading partner, even as it is also a major ally of the United States

·   North Korea is an economic cripple, even as it is aligned with the PRC.

·   North Korea is not necessarily amenable to Chinese advice, much less Chinese instruction.

·   The United States maintains a major security presence in the region, leveraging access to bases in Japan and the ROK.

The “core interests” laid out by Dai Bingguo suggest that the PRC’s security interests would be best served by maintaining good relations with both North Korea and the ROK, while forestalling development of any grand coalition of the ROK, United States and Japan that could contain the PRC and adversely affect Chinese economic development.

Yet, for much of the 2000s, Beijing pressed historical and territorial issues that would antagonize Seoul. In 2003, Chinese officials asked UNESCO to declare ancient tombs from the kingdom of Koguryo in the PRC as world heritage sites. Simultaneously, the “Northeast Asia History Project,” a Beijing-funded endeavor, tried to establish that the Koguryo kingdom was, in fact, a part of Chinese culture. It is believed that the latter project was meant to forestall any future attempt by a reunified Korea to claim Chinese territory with substantial ethnic Korean populations. However, it might have been intended to signal to Pyongyang, and possibly Seoul, that instability on the peninsula could lead to Chinese intervention—justified by historical claims to the northern portion. Chinese claims to the Senkakus and much of the South China Sea appear rooted in similar claims.

Another territorial dispute arose in 2006, when Chinese officials indicated that Socotra Rock was properly part of the PRC, based on the PRC’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The issue became more pointed in 2011, when Beijing dispatched three vessels to the vicinity of the disputed are—and, more recently, when it declared that its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) includes the airspace over Socotra Rock.

Sino-South Korean relations arguably reached their nadir in the wake of the 2010 North Korean attack on the South Korean frigate Cheonan and the subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong. While neither action was perpetrated by the Chinese, Beijing’s refusal to condemn the attacks alienated the ROK.

Chinese Efforts to Improve Relations

Sino-South Korean relations have improved, however, since these 2010 incidents. Economic ties between the two states were never disrupted, and the constant stream of commerce limited the impact of Chinese reticence. The PRC remains the ROK’s most important trade partner—serving as both the largest exporter of goods to the ROK and as its largest export market. Efforts to negotiate a Sino-South Korean free trade agreement reflect this extensive economic relationship.