By Bonnie Glaser
Q1: Was the official statement by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs particularly harsh?
No. China’s foreign ministry statement said that it is “firmly opposed” to North Korea’s nuclear test. It “strongly” urged the DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization and “stop taking actions that worsen the situation.” The statement also underscored China’s resolve to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue within the framework of the Six Party talks. This language is virtually identical to the wording that China’s foreign ministry used after the North’s February 2013 test. A sentence from the 2013 statement that was not included this time called on all parties “to respond in a cool-headed manner.” The exclusion of any reference to other parties suggests that Beijing is putting the onus on North Korea to act and views a strong international response as acceptable.
After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, China issued a much tougher statement. It accused the DPRK of defying the “universal opposition of the international community” and “flagrantly” conducting the test. Use of the term “flagrantly” up till then had been used to condemn the actions of putative adversaries, not those of a socialist ally. That term was not been again in official Chinese statements that were issued following North Korea’s subsequent nuclear or long-range missile tests.
Q2: Is China likely to support tightening sanctions on North Korea?
Beijing is likely to join in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) actions to condemn North Korea’s latest nuclear test, including authorization of a new UNSC resolution that includes another round of sanctions. China may be more willing than in the past to strictly enforce existing and new UN sanctions, for example by conducting more rigorous inspections of vehicles crossing the border China-North Korea and more closely monitoring the cargo carried by North Korean flights over Chinese territory. China may also be prepared to take unilateral steps to put pressure on North Korea, including delaying delivery of oil and other forms of assistance. However, it is unlikely that China will agree to actions that could endanger stability and lead to economic or political collapse, and result in sudden Korean unification with the potential deployment of U.S. troops close to the Chinese border. Gaining Chinese support for UN sanctions that focus on the banking sector is likely to meet with resistance.
Since North Korea’s first nuclear explosion, Beijing has recognized the need to employ pressure in dealing with its sometimes unruly ally. From China’s perspective, however, sanctions and other forms of pressure must be part of a broader strategy that includes positive inducements and dialogue. Such a “grand bargain” might include security assurances, economic assistance, and diplomatic recognition by the United States and Japan. Sanctions alone, the Chinese believe, are unlikely to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.
Q3: What is China’s most immediate concern and does it see any opportunities in this crisis?
Preserving domestic stability is, as always, the top concern of Chinese leaders. The nuclear test took place approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the China-North Korea border. Tremors from the explosion spread into northeastern China, raising anxieties about possible injuries to citizens as well as contamination of the air, water and soil. Chinese schools situated in towns close to the border were evacuated. China’s Foreign Ministry said that environmental officials were monitoring for possible radiation near the border, but had not detected anything abnormal in the immediate aftermath of the test. The Chinese Communist Party will attach priority to ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens and preventing discontent that could lead to online criticism of the CCP or even protests.
China will also seek to use this opportunity to bolster its image as a responsible international stakeholder and improve relations with the United States. By supporting U.N. sanctions, China will showcase its willingness to uphold international law. Prior cooperation with the US has won Beijing praise from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. With friction persisting on a number of issues, including cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property and Chinese island building and militarization of the South China Sea the Chinese will capitalize on North Korea’s nuclear test to engage in limited cooperation with Washington.
Q4: How will China’s relations with North Korea likely be affected?
China’s relations with North Korea have been strained in recent years primarily due to North Korea’s insistence on pursuing its nuclear weapons program. After a prolonged period of tension during which high-level exchanges were suspended, Beijing became anxious about its lack of both knowledge about developments inside North Korea and channels to Pyongyang and subsequently launched an effort to repair frayed ties. In mid-2015, China hosted Choe Ryong-hae at its military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. A month later Beijing dispatched Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang to attend its military parade, the first visit by a member of China’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee since 2011. The nascent improvement in China-North Korea relations apparently suffered a setback when Kim’s favorite North Korea pop band canceled its performances in China, possibly because of Pyongyang’s claim to possession of a hydrogen bomb.
North Korea’s decision to conduct a fourth nuclear test will likely further sour China-DPRK ties. Pyongyang apparently did not provide any notice to Beijing prior to the test, which it had done prior to previous tests. Given China’s persistent diplomatic efforts to reconvene the Six Party Talks and its repeated urgings to North Korea to return to its denuclearization commitments, Kim Jong-un’s decision to proceed with another nuclear test is a statement of defiance and a slap in China’s face. Xi Jinping, who has been unwilling to spend any political capital on improving ties with Pyongyang, will likely be further convinced that his emphasis on developing relations with Seoul is correct. In the absence of a change in North Korea’s stance on its nuclear program Xi is unlikely to agree to meet with Kim Jong-un for the remainder of his term in office, which extends to the end of 2022. It cannot be ruled out that Xi will undertake a recalibration of China’s policy toward North Korea in an effort to more effectively protect and advance Chinese interests going forward.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.