Angry friend

Print edition : November 03, 2006

The nuclear test has shaken North Korea's ties with long-time ally China.

PALLAVI AIYAR in Beijing

PYONGYANG'S nuclear test has sent shock waves across northeastern Asia, upset the already precarious balance of power in the region, and forced a rethink of military and foreign policy strategies among its neighbours from Tokyo to Seoul. But nowhere has the impact been as profound as in North Korea's long-term supporter, China.

In the past, the Chinese have described their relationship with North Korea as being as "close as lips and teeth". But, following the test on October 9, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared that China and North Korea should no longer be described as "allies".

"The DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] nuclear test has led to a fundamental, deep change in China-North Korea relations," says Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University's International Relations Department and a long-term watcher of China-North Korea ties. "We used to be `brothers and comrades', now we are just short of enemies. China has joined in slapping sanctions on the DPRK. Friends don't do that."

Beijing responded to the test swiftly and condemned it using language that had not been used before in the context of China-North Korea relations. The test was called a "brazen" move in "flagrant disregard" of international norms.

According to media reports, Beijing was informed of the test by Pyongyang only some 20 minutes before it was conducted. The timing of the test was also an embarrassment to China: it overshadowed a historic ice-breaking summit with the Japanese Prime Minister the day before and disrupted a major Communist Party plenum.

China and North Korea have a relationship going back half a century to the Korean War when Chinese volunteers poured across the border to help their North Korean "comrades" secure an American defeat. In recent years, China has been one of the few friends of Kim Jong-il's increasingly isolated regime, functioning as the impoverished country's economic lifeline. The two countries share an 870-mile (1,392-kilometre) border and China is North Korea's largest trading partner, supplying nearly 90 per cent of the latter's oil and 80 per cent of its consumer goods. It is also the DPRK's largest food donor: 90 per cent of the 577,000 tonnes of food that China donated last year was directed to North Korea. China has also invested in North Korean industrial projects, including in a glass factory near Pyongyang. A Chinese company manages Pyongyang's second biggest department store.

However, despite their historical and economic links, relations between the neighbours have grown increasingly complex with China embarking on the path of economic reforms and North Korea sticking resolutely to a brand of Stalinism. A palpable divergence of interests between Pyongyang and Beijing has thus developed in recent years even as China has continued to prop up Kim Jong-il's regime with subsidised food and oil.

The North Korean leader has reportedly told his Ambassadors that China is fundamentally unreliable and cannot be trusted when push comes to shove. Pyongyang's media have described Chinese economic reforms as "revisionist".

Pyongyang's behaviour has deeply infuriated China, which sees the DPRK as being ungrateful and defiant. By refusing to return to the six-party talks - China's main foreign policy initiative to resolve the impasse on the Korean peninsula - North Korea has created a situation where, in Chinese eyes, China has been left with no choice but to join in slapping sanctions on its neighbour despite its belief that these will only make the situation more unstable.

By conducting the test despite opposition from Beijing, Pyongyang has shown scant regard for China's concerns and exposed the limitations of Beijing's influence over North Korea.

A PICTURE SHOWING Chinese leader Mao Zedong (right) and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung at the Memorial Hall of the War to Resist the U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea in the Chinese border city of Dandong.-LIU JIN/AFP

In the past a "buffer zone" theory conditioned much of China's policy towards its neighbour. According to this theory, the existence of North Korea was of strategic value to Beijing as it served as a "buffer" between China and the United States troops stationed in South Korea. For long, one of Beijing's worst security nightmares has been the prospect of another Korean war, leading to eventual reunification of Korea under U.S. influence and bringing American troops right up to China's northeastern borders. But according to Professor Yan, concerns for "buffer zones" are clearly a thing of the past and China has now reached the end of its tether. "It's clear to me that China has made a decision that the U.S. is strategically more useful to it than North Korea."

However, to read the situation as a straightforward alignment of U.S. and Chinese interests would be simplistic. While the two countries find themselves in unison regarding the goal of denuclearising North Korea, their reasons in wanting this goal differ. For the U.S., the North Korean test is a fundamental threat to the global order and hence a problem in its own right.

For China, the test is less of an issue in itself. Beijing's concern is more that the test is likely to serve as a catalyst for other headaches. "From Beijing's point of view the DPRK getting nuclear weapons is not the worst part of the issue. China is surrounded by nuclear neighbours: India, Pakistan and Russia," says Professor Yan.

Compared to the U.S., China's fears are more of a regional nature. It worries that North Korea's defiance could lead to the destabilisation of Korea, the militarisation and even nuclearisation of Japan and the growing influence of the U.S. in the region. This is in addition to a flood of North Korean refugees crossing the border and putting socio-economic pressure on its under-developed northeastern provinces.

Already, there have been calls in Japan for a debate on the need for modifications in the country's pacifist Constitution. A nuclear Japan is a worst-case scenario for China. Chaos in Korea would also draw Beijing into an international conflict when its current priorities are more domestic.

China is experiencing industrialisation and urbanisation on a historically unprecedented scale. This has led to a host of internal uncertainties and a rich-poor divide that is threatening Beijing's much-cherished social stability. The spectre of armies of North Korean refugees adding to these challenges is not one that China cares for; such a prospect would threaten carefully constructed plans for the economic rejuvenation of the country's north-east.

A potential collapse of Kim Jong-il's regime, resulting from sanctions imposed following the test, could also disrupt Beijing's skilful courtship of South Korea. Over the past decade, China has carefully begun to wean Seoul away from U.S. domination and into its own circle of influence. China has thus supplanted America as South Korea's largest trade partner and trendy young Koreans have begun to prefer learning Mandarin to English as a way to get ahead in their careers.

As a result, China's approach to the Korean issue has thus far been conciliatory, aimed at facilitating dialogue and averting a military confrontation at all costs. China initiated the six-party talks as a way of achieving its aims, getting the U.S., Russia, Japan and the two Koreas to sit around a table and hold discussions in Beijing. The collapse of the talks last year pushed China into a corner.

The stresses that China faces as it tries to resolve the situation to its own best advantage are evident in the contrary signals sent out by Beijing in the test's aftermath. Swift condemnation of the test was tempered by a statement that China would "continue to develop good-neighbourly and friendly cooperation" with the DPRK and that this policy was "unshakeable".

A few days later China joined the United Nations Security Council in its decision to impose sanctions on North Korea, but almost immediately expressed reservations over the resolution's call for inspecting cargo moving in and out of the country. Without China's active implementation of the sanctions they are unlikely to have any effect. China has reportedly begun to check trucks entering North Korea across Chinese borders but has refused to board and examine ships bound for the DPRK. Once again, Beijing is stressing on moderation of response and a return to dialogue and the six-party talks at the earliest.

"China wants to prevent a deterioration of its relations with North Korea, which will inevitably worsen if it complies with the sanctions. However, if it does not implement them China will lose its credibility in international eyes," says Professor Yan, summing up Beijing's dilemma.

In his opinion, appeasement of North Korea is no longer a viable strategy for China. "Security Council resolutions cannot change North Korea's policy. They will not give up their weapons because of resolutions," he says. The choice facing China at the moment is thus clear, he says: "China either accepts a nuclear North Korea with all the consequences that follow, or rejects it."

The big question that remains unanswered is whether China will support military action against North Korea were Pyongyang to continue defying the Security Council and conduct more tests, as it now threatens to do. Beijing and Pyongyang are signatories to a "Friendship Treaty" which binds them together in a military alliance. The treaty has never been formally abrogated, although few analysts believe it to have continued validity. While it is still extremely unlikely that China will endorse or participate in any military conflict with the DPRK, old certainties have melted away in the post-test world. It is equally unlikely that Beijing would militarily assist its former ally in such an event, as it had once pledged to do.

Concludes Professor Yan: "China is to a certain extent lost. It is groping to find the right way forward but no ready answers are available."

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