China’s Displeasure with North Korea’s Missile Tests

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 19

Conventional wisdom in Washington has stated that Beijing, if it wished to do so, could easily persuade Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks and possibly even renounce its nuclear weapons program. This belief has only been bolstered by the statements of Chinese spokesmen who have habitually claimed that relations between China and North Korea were “as close as lips and teeth.” Events since North Korea’s missile tests on July 4, however, suggest the limits to both of these beliefs. North Korea utterly disregarded China’s public and private urgings to forgo its missile tests. Beijing’s reaction to this act of insolence, while characteristically subtle, has been pointed and even publicized.

Despite the public warnings by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on June 27 not to test the missiles and to return to the path of negotiations, Pyongyang went ahead on July 4, a date chosen with premeditation to insult Washington, to launch seven missiles (Xinhua Financial Network, June 28). The DPRK then rejected a high-level Chinese emissary who would have expressed China’s unhappiness with the missile tests (Mainichi Daily News, July 14). Rather than offering a breakthrough in the stalled Six-Party Talks, Pyongyang’s tests and its subsequent reactions only served to intensify the current stalemate. This outcome resulted in a predicament for Beijing because not only did North Korea disregard its views, it publicly insulted both the United States and China and greatly complicated Beijing’s efforts to relaunch the Six-Party Talks in Beijing on the basis of the September 2005 agreement, an accord that is probably seen as China’s crowning diplomatic achievement of the recent past.

Soon afterward, China’s displeasure with Pyongyang’s provocative gesture became publicly known. Beijing notified Washington and Seoul that North Korean refugees who had fled from North Korea to China and had taken refuge in a U.S. consulate in Northeast China could now travel to South Korea or the United States as they had originally hoped to do (McClatchy Newspapers, August 3). China also communicated to Japan that it no longer objected to Tokyo raising the issue of its kidnapped citizens at the Six-Party Talks (Asia Times Online, August 11). In addition, China and Russia sponsored a UN resolution—granted, softer in tone than the version sponsored by Japan and the United States—which then passed the Security Council unanimously in the wake of these tests, condemning North Korea and imposing limited sanctions upon it (China Daily, July 11). Even though the Chinese government opposed additional sanctions on North Korea, Beijing even published an article in China Daily stating that the Security Council permanent representatives’ unanimous vote of the resolution was necessary (China Daily, July 17). Fourth, China announced in July that the Bank of China had frozen North Korean assets in 2005 due to North Korea’s counterfeiting and money-laundering activities (Asia Times Online, August 3). According to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, China also considerably reduced the quantity of its crude oil shipments to North Korea (Chosun Ilbo, August, 25). Finally, in August and September, amid reports of North Korean preparations for a nuclear test, Beijing held meetings with Washington’s envoy to the Six-Party Talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, where he announced that China was disappointed with North Korea’s behavior (New York Times, September 5). During these meetings, a conspicuous item on the agenda was the possibility of a joint Sino-American warning to the North Korean government not to conduct more missile tests or a nuclear test.

The purpose of these actions by China, which, though reported in the media, were not proclaimed publicly, goes far beyond merely registering its displeasure with North Korea’s provocative behavior. China is communicating to the North Koreans, in no uncertain terms, that defiance of Beijing’s wishes carries many negative consequences. China is also simultaneously demonstrating to Washington that it still possesses the means to influence Pyongyang’s behavior. In other words, while demonstrating to the other members of the Six-Party Talks that it does indeed have the means to inflict serious costs upon the North Korean regime, China must also remind these governments that such an influence may only be used sparingly lest its efforts result in a failure that publicly embarrasses China.

Beyond demonstrating its influence over North Korea, China also wants the Six-Party Talks that it hosts to resume. It knows that a nuclear test by North Korea will effectively scuttle the talks, raise the likelihood of additional U.S. and Japanese pressure upon Pyongyang, trigger further pressure on Japan to develop nuclear weapons and reduce its leverage upon both Pyongyang and Seoul, which now sees China as the key actor in the effort to induce a peaceful end to the crisis. Apart from the fact that China opposes sanctions upon proliferators as a way of persuading them to give up their nuclear programs, it is also at pains to disabuse Washington of the illusion that China will sacrifice its real or alleged influence over the DPRK to advance U.S. interests.

Therefore, Beijing continues to publicly oppose sanctions and will probably refuse to go ahead with a public joint warning to Pyongyang regarding the potential nuclear weapons test (Reuters, September 6). Undoubtedly, it has made serious private diplomatic representations to the DPRK not to do so and may be aided by the fact that according to South Korean sources, North Korea now recognizes that the July 4 tests were a mistake (Chosun Ilbo, September 7). Washington should not believe that China would support U.S.-based sanctions on the North to achieve the common objective of preventing any additional tests and resuming the negotiations. China as well as Russia and probably South Korea fundamentally oppose the Bush Administration’s belief that if it places more sanctions on North Korea the latter will either crack or yield to the pressure.

Therefore, we may expect continued intense diplomatic efforts to bring Pyongyang back to the table. Nevertheless, while the Sino-DPRK relationship is hardly what it was, it is most likely that China will clench its teeth, purse its lips and deal with the North Korean government and policy rather than embrace Washington’s position. The fact that China still opposes sanctions upon North Korea and will not associate itself with new U.S. proposals, such as holding an expanded conference on the issue without North Korea’s participation, strongly suggests that it will take an enormous provocation by North Korea for China to embrace Washington’s position regarding North Korean proliferation. China cannot afford to be complicit in any U.S. proposals that might undermine its own legitimacy and furnish a precedent for intensified U.S. efforts to force “regime change” upon China.

Strategically, China will not let allow North Korea to simply be sacrificed to serve American interests. As much of the scholarly literature on Sino-DPRK relations states, in China’s calculus of its interests, North Korea needs to remain intact, albeit reformed. A precipitate collapse of North Korea or a military conflict is very much against what China, as well as what Russia and South Korea regard as their current national interests. Therefore, while China will try to establish a non-nuclear order on the Korean Peninsula, it will not adopt the U.S. position, which it regards as being opposed to its own vital interests.

In China’s eyes, Pyongyang is undoubtedly a provocative and reckless actor, but so is Washington in its efforts to force the issue and to induce China to sacrifice its interests and equities. It will take much more provocation than has been the case to induce China to abandon North Korea and sacrifice its interests to U.S. policy. Yet at the same time, it is unlikely that such provocations (e.g. a nuclear weapons test) will benefit any of the members of the Six-Party Talks, including Pyongyang.