Analysis: China is not rowing back on North Korea pressure, here’s why.


Yesterday analysts observed the opening of a new bridge between China and North Korea in Jilin province, connecting the two countries. On hearing the news, it was widely assumed that the new infrastructure was a sign of China’s easing pressure upon Pyongyang and would of course, be used to facilitate trade and commerce between the two countries. It goes without saying that prior to this, Beijing’s transactions with North Korea have plummeted dramatically in the onset of the past two years, largely due to the increasing scope of United Nations Security Resolutions and pressure placed on the country by the Trump administration. With the past 12 months being centered upon diplomacy between all the involved parties, Kim Jong un having visited China himself three times and Xi Jinping pledging a trip to Pyongyang, it has consequentially been assumed that Beijing is now subtly easing pressure on its neighbour and thus the completion of a new bridge is the sure sign.

I am not convinced. Here, I am going to argue the opposite. That is, China is not prepared to take risks on North Korea and is in fact owing to the events of recent months, is again increasing pressure on its neighbour? Why? Because Beijing’s approach to Pyongyang must be interpreted within the wider paradigm of its relationship with the United States. This is an area that is not only very high stakes, but is not going well. Below outlines that China’s foreign policy continues to be mapped out by the desire to sustain economic growth, and thus uphold a stable relationship with Washington. In turn, it continues to express an aversion for direct confrontation with the United States (even if there is disagreement). Locked in negotiations to end Trump’s trade war, North Korea is not an issue they are willing to cross the line on. As a result, following the fallout of the Hanoi summit and the roadblack in NK-US diplomacy, China is in fact increasing pressure on Pyongyang of late.

What is China’s foreign policy? That in itself is a vague question, because foreign policy is rarely explained as a coherent or simplified whole, but in essence a range of positions, considerations and leading ideas which are then discretely expressed on an issue by issue basis. Most people accuse contemporary China’s foreign policy as being guided by “revisionism“- that is a bid to forcibly challenge and transform the international order into its own terms. That however, is not accurate and based on cliche discourses of authoritarian foreign aggression. If we are to understand where China’s range of foreign policy positions and considerations begin, we must instead look towards the mantle of “economic growth” and “stability”. A continuing mantle since the Deng Xiaoping era of 1978 has been to sustain Communist Party rule by facilitating successful economic development in China. By ensuring a prosperous society, a stable society can be ensured as well.

For all there have been talk of “changes” under the rule of Xi Jinping, this principle continues to be the political priority of the party-state system and in turn, a key consideration of China’s foreign policy. If economic growth is to be upheld, then the international environment by which China operates in must concurrently be stable and non-confrontational. As an increasingly globalized economy in the centre of global commerce, finance and other commodities, China relies upon continuing international market access and healthy relationships abroad. What does that mean? It means Beijing necessitates a stable and cordial relationship with the western world, and who in particular? The foremost economic and financial power on Earth, the United States. Maintaining a stable and cooperative relationship with Washington is in fact China’s paramount foreign policy priority.

Now some of you are going to read this and scratch your heads, because areas of disagreement between the two countries and apparent rivalries, are huge. Yes, perhaps it is worth arguing that in some areas China has made mistakes. However, that is a different story. As a whole, China is careful not to be outwardly confrontational with America, even if the disagreements are huge. If you follow China’s media scope on the United States, it repeatedly rejects “Cold War mentalities”, stresses “cooperation” and offers a hand to negotiate with America. Whilst it is assertive to countries who follow America too closely (Canada) to create space for its own interests, it will never descend into an explicit battle for global hegemony against Washington (ignore the media hype). If one observes Trump’s trade war against the country, China have in fact been quick to negotiate and attempt to address his demands: because a confrontational relationship with America hurts China’s own domestic goals and achievements.

Never has this doctrine of Chinese foreign policy been more relevant on the issue of North Korea. Now of course, there are certain interests China has in the country that puts it at odds with Washington, including the presence of U.S troops in South Korea and the immediate proximity to its border region. It is true to say Beijing resists the regime’s collapse and continually offers it a lifeline. Nevertheless, there are limits as to what it will give Pyongyang, not least in the face of behaviour by Kim Jong un which fundamentally hurts China’s own interests. When Pyongyang tests missiles and nuclear weapons, it threatens regional stability and invites a stronger military presence from the United States. Thus, disrupting China’s own goals. Therefore, when Washington demands a tougher approach towards Pyongyang, whilst Beijing may have some reservations it nevertheless offers a hand of cooperation. China participates with the goal of re-establishing stability and drawing the DPRK to the negotiating table. It is only if these goals are achieved, by which Beijing typically becomes more lenient on sanctions enforcement.

However, the context we face today is very different to the past. Particularly because as noted above, we have a U. S President who has been willing to engage in all out offensive against China and simultaneously, take a much more assertive stance against North Korea too. This has placed Beijing in a precarious position, but nevertheless as per its foreign policy goals it has chose to respond to these developments with cautiousness and also being willing to negotiate, than simply escalate matters against the unpredictable administration. Thus, in 2017, Xi Jinping made the decision to adhere to a tougher line against Pyongyang in the view of a near endless spree of testing and threats of military action from the U.S. Not only were sanctions significantly tightened, but they were also seriously enforced. The view was to get on good terms with Trump and also to prevent a crisis. By 2018, diplomacy commenced, which eased the pressure on China. It is from this point that everyone would assume Beijing would start becoming lenient on sanctions with North Korea, but actually that hasn’t happened.

There are two reasons why 1) The Trade War and 2) The aftermath of the Hanoi summit. Let’s start with the first. After diplomacy on the Korean peninsula began last year Trump immediately unleashed the trade conflict against Beijing, demanding a plethora of economic changes. Whilst China is obviously unhappy with this, again it has chose to respond via a path of negotiations and keeping the relationship with America stable. The context is exceptional in its influence over things, because Trump is a highly transactional President who utilizes a philosophy of “if you do X on this issue, we will do Z“- in essence he connects, threatens and leverages everything. Thus it is not unreasonable to note that if China undermines Trump’s efforts with North Korea substantially, then he will become more hostile in the pursuit of his trade efforts. Therefore, there is a clear price set out for Beijing if they give Pyongyang too much. With a deal only weeks away now, China can’t afford to get this wrong. Economic stability must come first.

Secondly, on the matter of Hanoi. For the Trump administration to walk out of the summit and intensify their demands was the last thing China wanted. Such an outcome creates risk in the form of more aggressive demands from each side. As a result, diplomacy must be salvaged. In no circumstances must either side for China walk away from the table and leave regional stability in doubt. As a result, to undermine sanctions and increase North Korea’s own hand, giving them too much space, is inherently foolish, especially if it results in another missile test. This, combined with the above, has now accumulated in a hardening of China’s approach to North Korea in the run up to the next few weeks…

There is strong empirical evidence for this. The DailyNK reported in March that China began sending North Korean workers in the country home enmasse, announcing a surprise policy change which limited the time they could spend in the country. This can be interpreted as a clear aftermath of Hanoi. China had been otherwise more lenient on these workers in the view that sanctions would be soon officially lifted or at least downplayed as things progressed, only to be met with the surprise outcome of a “no deal”. For example, when visiting Dandong in January 2019, I found all of the North Korean state run restaurants to be operating as usual and staffed with expatriates (contrary to sanctions). This was an example of lenience towards the country after the events of 2018. Now, that appears to be a turning a table.

Secondly, there is evidence that China continues to hold firm on bigger sanctions relating to North Korean industries and export materials. The DailyNK also claims that North Korean factories are closing down. NKnews has also reported that North Korean imports from China are also sinking, suggesting a tightening domestic monetary policy. In addition China is also publicly reaffirming that it is not selling exports of banned commodities such as fuel to North Korea. Even if the latter has not been the case in practice, the statement should be interpreted as a clear diplomatic signal to the United States that it is falling in line with sanctions measures on the country. In each sense, the political pressures for China to comply are strong, and the evidence is showing that.

So in conclusion, the awaited rollback of Chinese sanctions enforcement on North Korea has not happened. Evidence seems to imply the opposite. Despite China’s interests in keeping the regime alive, analysts can sometimes overstate Beijing’s generosity towards Pyongyang and erroneously assume a form of “solidarity” in the form of state level discourses. The reality is, however, that it is in China’s broader and specific foreign policy interests to maintain pressure on Pyongyang as a means of self-interest. Seeking to pacify the Trump administration and bring an end to the trade war, uphold domestic economic growth and also ensure that US-DPRK diplomacy does not collapse, in every sense it is China’s initiative to maintain the status quo of sanctions on North Korea. The construction of a new bridge isn’t going to change that.