On America’s Independence Day, North Korea successfully launched a missile that some experts assert can hit targets as far away as Alaska. Apparently, Pyongyang does not yet have the capacity to place a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile. That said, at the rate Kim the Third has been upgrading his country’s attack potential, this may be months as opposed to years away.
The launch happened as the Russian and Chinese Presidents were meeting in Moscow, and just before Trump was to encounter his Russian and Chinese counterparts in the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg. None of this was by accident.
Powwowing in Moscow, Putin and Xi-jinping jointly proposed a deal that would see North Korea freezing its nuclear development and missile testing programmes in return for South Korea and the United States phasing out their joint defence exercises. The Russian and Chinese Presidents also declared their opposition to the THAAD anti-missile system that the US has begun to deploy in South Korea. They claim that this system threatens their own security and is destabilizing for the entire region. In fact, deployment of such a system is essential if the Korean crisis is to have a chance of a safe landing. The THAAD system has just recently been successfully tested for the fourteenth time.
The Sino-Russian pitch may sound enticing. If acted upon, however, it would send the message that Washington had chosen appeasement of the North over defence readiness. It would send a similar message to America’s allies across the region – Japan, Taiwan and the range of states that feel threatened by Beijing’s campaign to turn the South and East China Seas into a grand Chinese lake. And the “peace at any costs” camp in South Korea – and elsewhere – would feel emboldened.
A faulty assumption underlies much of American and Western thinking on the Korean front, namely, that America can recruit China to put effective pressure on the North to reverse its military build-up.
However much the regimes in place in China and North Korea differ, their basic political ideology is the same. Both have been ruled by a monopolistic communist party for some seven decades now. True, the Chinese party currently allows its citizens more freedom than does its North Korean equivalent. Yet the difference is only quantitative. And Beijing’s attitude towards fundamental human and political rights has, if anything, become more hostile under the current Chinese President.
The most recent manifestation of this was the denial to Nobel Prize Laureate, Liu Xiabo, of the possibility to travel abroad to obtain treatment for the cancer he was suffering, and which killed him on 13 July. Liu Xiabo died while serving an eleven-year prison sentence for advocating such scandalous ideas as the need for China to move towards a democratic system. His wife is still under house-arrest.
And as for Korea, there is little reason to believe, as has become an almost commonplace assertion in Western commentary on the peninsular crisis, that the collapse of the North Korean dictatorship would present China with a massive influx of refugees and that chaos would then ensue in its border regions.
The Koreas of 2017 are very different from the Germanies of 1989, but the German experience can nonetheless be instructive. During the five years following the collapse of the Wall, only some three percent of the East German population emigrated. And those that left went to democratic and capitalist Germany, not eastwards to the then decommunizing states of the former Warsaw Treaty Organization. Why would anyone think North Koreans would respond to the fall of their decrepit communist regime by fleeing to an almost as decrepit Chinese communist regime?
And China, with a population of more than fifty times that of North Korea, and a GDP per capita of almost US $7000, easily ten times greater than that of North Korea, certainly has the resources to deal with those who might misguidedly do so.
No, the real issue is that Chinese Communist Party leadership understands that were the North Korean communist party to lose power, South Korean forms of governance and institutions would sooner or later take their place in North Korea. This could also mean American soldiers on the Chinese border and a strengthening of anti-communist forces in China and across its region.
Against this background, the Chinese leadership must do everything possible to keep the North Korean regime in power, however problematical the latter’s policies may prove for China’s relations with other regional actors and in particular with the United States. Beijing might prefer that the members of the North Korean elite are not poisoned in foreign airports. Or that the North Korean regime does not kidnap South Koreans, as it has from time to time – and so on. But for Beijing, these are details, not essence.
However, at the same time as China works to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime, it needs to give the impression that it is sympathetic to the efforts of America and its regional allies to rein it in. This is essential if it wants to reduce the likelihood of a major military build-up on its borders that, while ostensibly targeting North Korea, could also have negative implications for its own security. So, for example, in an effort to underscore the impression that Beijing wants to take Pyongyang down a notch or two, President Xi-Jinping agreed at a meeting with his American homologue in the margins of the recent G20 meeting In Hamburg that China would participate in American military exercises in the region in 2018. This is so much smoke.
Note as well that since 1961 China and North Korea have had a bilateral treaty that includes a joint defence commitment, formalizing a de facto arrangement that had existed since communist China’s intervention in the Korean War of 1950-53. Controlling some 99 per cent of North Korea’s northern border (Russia controls the rest), Beijing could shut down the Korean economy in the blink of an eye.
There is evidence suggesting that countries with close relations to China, such as Pakistan. have provided technical support for North Korea’s nuclear build-up. There is also evidence that such support has been forthcoming from across its northern border. A recent report in Newsweek has, for example, claimed that companies in the PRC are actively supporting the North Korea missile programme. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has reported, the latest North Korean missile was menacing not just because of its 4,000-mile range, but because it was road-mobile – and the transporter was provided by China.
The bottom line is that despite all the lofty resolutions that have been passed at the UN Security Council about restrictions on trading with the Hermit State, China has continued to provide North Korea with vital economic support.
Not only does China need the North Korea regime to help ensure its own political survival, it is actively using it as a battering ram against the United States. Its objective is to produce a situation in which America’s security guarantees to its longstanding Allies in the Asian region lose credibility, and a vacuum ensues that only Beijing can fill. The PRC seeks to create a political environment in which the Chinese communities of Hong Kong and Taiwan defer unquestionably to Beijing, and the other states of the region do its bidding from a prostrated position.
In 2017, the relationship between Beijing and its neighbours is a particularly loaded issue. President Xi-Jinping faces internal communist party elections in the latter part of the year that will determine whether he controls the party’s crucial decision-making bodies. He is gunning for a situation that could give him a third five-year term after 2022. This would challenge the norm that was embraced by the Chinese communist party after Mao’s death and his rule of 27 years. The party, in a move similar to that undertaken by its Soviet counterpart after Stalin’s demise, wanted to guard against the over-accumulation of power in any one individual’s hands.
And Russia’s interest in all this? Moscow has been working very hard to establish a strategic relationship with the PRC. Taking a common line with Beijing on the Korean issue is part of this process. But Moscow is also interested in fomenting conflict in China’s region. The reason is not hard to fathom: a conflict in and around the South and East China Seas would absorb a lion’s share of America’s strategic energies. In turn, this would generate a situation along Russia’ western borders where little or no effective opposition to Moscow’s expansionist designs would be forthcoming.
David Law is a Canadian security and governance practitioner with over three decades of experience in the field. David is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.