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Monthly Archives: April 2013

China and N Korea: A complicated Relationship

Image from Reuters.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea have a complicated relationship built on similar ideology and mutual economic gain. In fact, Support began in the Korean war in the 50’s when china obviously supported other communist regimes. In 1961, the two countries signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, whereby China pledged to immediately render military and other assistance by all means to its ally against any outside attack. This treaty was prolonged twice, in 1981 and 2001, with a validity till 2021. The PRC in recent years has been the most powerful ally of the small pariah state. From this relationship, the PRC fills its need for raw materials, and its need for regional power. North Korea obviously stands to gain from having a large friend in the region, in addition to receiving its largest supply of food, arms, and fuel. However, China’s stance on UN sanctions against N Korea indicates that raw goods and ideology are not sufficient leverage for N Korea to hold so powerful an ally.

China has voted in favor of, among other items, placing sanctions on N Korea, thus highlighting their limited allegiance. Sanctions are an especially strong move seeing that China is N Koreas biggest trade partner. Nicholas Eberstadt, a consultant at the World Bank, says that since the early 1990s, China has served as North Korea’s chief food supplier and has accounted for nearly 90 percent of its energy imports. By some estimates, China provides 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. While China has historically backed N Korea, the recent nuclear tests seem to be a deal breaker for China. Li BaoDong China’s ambassador to the UN, stated that China was “committed to safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula”. This statement indicates that China is less concerned about N Korea and more concerned about the instability that N Korea creates. China fears that, should the stability in N Korea decrease, thousands of N Korean refugees would inevitably cross the border into China.

Although China has indeed voted in favor of sanctions, it has done so with reservation. On October 20, 2006 Liu Jianchao, formerly the chief spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “Sanctions are not our aim. Our aim is to accelerate the reopening of six-party talks and resolve the DPRK nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue.” Therefore, as sanctions are now tightened, it is probable that China will simply sign the resolution with no intention of fulfilling the enforcement clause. Notably, China has continued to send fuel shipments and commercial trade to N Korea, while also failing to inspect additional shipments bound for N Korea. As a military ally with treaties to support N Korea against outside forces, it is questionable whether or not China will do anything to impede N Korea.

The balance of power in the region is delicate and China seeks to maintain what power it can. China’s main tool in recent years has been its economic might, due in part to its sheer size and its currency manipulation. Economic domination is being used not only in N Korea, but in Africa and Vietnam as well. However, N Korea is different from China’s other smaller trade partners. It additionally seeks a balance of nuclear power with the west and as such feels that it has the right to build and test nuclear weapons, even against substantial pressure from the international community. The reason for their bold stance could be due to the N Korean government’s fear of being overshadowed by its neighbors; to the south it faces an opposing democratic government, and to the north it faces an economic powerhouse.

The US should realize that China has limited power, and it should also realize that China is in a difficult position due to its complicated relationship with North Korea. The US can capitalize on China’s fear of instability and thus achieve the sanction enforcement that it seeks. This in turn will afford the US a Chinese ally in the region against N Korea. These new resolutions that China has supported are not necessarily a pivot in their foreign policy, but rather signs of an increasingly desperate situation. In the long run, the US could diplomatically profit from this situation, either by helping China see that rogue countries obey no master and should be dealt with early, or by helping them see that the US is a far more stable ally. Working with China in East Asia is a way for all parties to accomplish what they desire. Due to the escalating nuclear situation in N Korea, it should be apparent to China that the US and arguably a majority of the world will step in when internal affairs cause instability in the region, it is therefore better to be cooperative early and advance as a trusted ally than try to upset the balance of power and force your way to the top.