The Guardian of the East

August 5, 2013
By Sahiba Trivedi

China has once again succeeded in demonstrating to the world the power it wields in Asia. Its efforts to resolve the recent tensions in the Korean peninsula are slowly bringing about positive results. Even though it will take a few years to become clear whether China’s efforts will have any long-term impact on the situation, it is likely that China’s image as one of the world’s upcoming superpowers will be bolstered.

Post the nuclear test carried out by North Korea on February 12th, 2013, the Korean peninsula witnessed a rapid escalation of tensions. With neighbour South Korea and the US threatening to tighten sanctions on North Korea, Pyongyang took increasingly aggressive steps; the next few weeks saw threats and counter-threats emanating from both sides. Even China condemned these tests, which gradually strained China’s ties with North Korea. Amid worsening relations with South Korea, North Korea withdrew its workers from the Kaesong joint industrial zone, forcing its closure and leading to great economic losses for both sides. The situation reached a stage where North Korea declared itself in a ‘state of war’ with South Korea. Finally, on March 7th, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved tightened economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

This Korean equation has had China’s active involvement since 2003 when the 6-party talks were initiated for the first time to halt the budding North Korean nuclear programme. These talks, hosted and chaired by China, are multilateral negotiations attended by North Korea, South Korea, the US, Russia, Japan, and China. Six rounds of these talks took place before getting stalled in 2009 when, despite warnings from South Korea, Japan and the US, North Korea carried out nuclear tests. Since then, China has been making efforts towards restarting these talks.

A close ally of North Korea, China holds significant clout in Pyongyang as it provides the heavily sanctioned country with much aid and some trade. It is also widely known that China has been responsible for bringing North Korea to the negotiation table. For China’s part, the issue is need-based; China would like its own backyard to be peaceful.

What is increasingly visible is a relatively new phenomenon; China is gradually getting frustrated with the North Koreans. Traditionally not one to sanction any of its allies, 2013 has seen China actively co-drafting UNSC sanctions against North Korea alongside the United States. As a result of these sanctions, during the first six months of 2013, China’s exports to North Korea fell by 13.6% as compared to the same period in 2012 - a decline mainly due to fall in Chinese export of crude oil to North Korea. This fall in exports has happened for the first time in the past four years. The Chinese state news agency also covered North Korea’s aggressive developments during the initial tense months in highly critical language – a sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s growing displeasure with Pyongyang. North Korea’s constant ‘blow hot, blow cold’ attitude seems to have pushed China into finally taking a stand on the issue of nuclear testing.

Since February 2013, tensions have simmered down to a certain extent. In June of 2013, a North Korean delegation visited China to negotiate for improving bilateral relations and in July, the Chinese Vice President visited Pyongyang with the aim to urge North Korea to restart the 6-nation talks. It was declared that the Chinese were aiming for a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula to ensure peace and stability with the Chinese VP clarifying that China will work towards eliminating nuclear weapons from the peninsula. According to some reports, in return, the Korean leader Kim Jong-un has supported the restarting of the 6-nation talks. However, these reports have not been validated by the North Korean state media.

To any reader who has been following this issue since the beginning, it is clear that China is still doing what it was in 2009 vis-à-vis North Korea; it is still urging the Asian rogue nation to rejoin talks. But this time around, China seems to have opted for slightly more stringent means, in a bid to make its displeasure clear. While the stance might have changed, it is clear that China does not necessarily want to push Pyongyang too far for fear of making the regime more reckless. This is evident from China’s official statement of not abandoning North Korea as sanctions were not the fundamental way to resolve nuclear issues. On his recent visit to Pyongyang, in order to restore frayed bilateral relations, the Chinese Vice President spoke about the two countries’ shared historical heritage through references to the Korean War and the Korean and Chinese martyrs.

It is quite likely that the current status quo in the Korean peninsula may be short-lived. Although North Korea has made some overtures which show that it is keen on restarting negotiations, it cannot be taken for granted that Pyongyang will let the talks come to fruition easily. The declaration of its intentions to the visiting Chinese Vice President may turn out to be another tactic to buy time and to earn China’s goodwill to continue aid and trade.

But, if China is able to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table and if the 6-nation talks actually move towards their desired goal, China is likely to gain in its geopolitical status. China is already a prominent power broker, especially in this region. The fact that China chose to co-draft the UNSC sanctions on North Korea earlier this year shows that China’s intentions regarding its global responsibilities are serious and that it takes its role as an emerging superpower sincerely. If this effort is successful, China is likely to start acting in a manner more in line with the goals of some of the other global powers like the US. It may also increase China’s dependability for the West. This improved credibility, in turn, may give China more bargaining room for other issues.