The United States Treasury Department claimed on March 22 that it was confident that China would back new United Nations’ financial sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions punish North Korea for the nuclear tests of February 12. An anonymous Chinese official — almost certainly speaking at the direction of his government – on March 22 revealed that China halted oil exports to North Korea.
Unfortunately, the pro forma Chinese punishment of North Korea for its most recent nuclear test will be intentionally lightweight. China had a similarly weak response to the first North Korean nuclear test on October 6, 2006, and it proved an insufficient disincentive to further nuclear and missile development. It increased backing to UN financial sanctions, and ceased oil exports to the country for a short period. As in 2006, China knows that Iran is likely to supply the energy shortfall to North Korea resulting from any loss from China’s embargo. Without a much stronger set of sanctions and enforcement mechanisms, a network of embargoed, rogue, and failed states have the outside option of trading with each other, and regaining overt Chinese and Russian support when international attention fades.
Anything more than a slap on North Korea’s wrist would chill Chinese relations with authoritarian regimes across the globe. For this reason, China can ill-afford any drastic action against North Korea. China is a long-time supporter of authoritarian governments worldwide, from Uzbekistan to Syria. This support is concretized in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China is the key diplomatic supporter of North Korea, and can dictate many North Korean policies based on China’s economic power and physical proximity. Other authoritarian states will watch the magnitude of Chinese reaction to North Korean behavior to calibrate the trust they can place in their own relations with China. These global relations between China and authoritarian regimes are crucial for China to obtain relatively inexpensive raw commodity imports that fuel its present top priority of economic growth. It is inconceivable that China would risk slowing its own economic growth because of a recent uptick in threats to the West from North Korea.
Short-term sanctions, however, will occur. China believes the young Kim Jong-Un, the new leader of North Korea, has overstepped his bounds with recent tests and threats towards the United States and South Korea. The increased Chinese support to sanctions and a decrease in North Korea’s access to oil markets serve China as both a message to Kim Jong-Un to follow a slightly quieter path, and a tool to stave off criticism of China at the United Nations were it not to support sanctions. Time is currently on the side of China and North Korea, leading to a trend of which China is well aware. China’s economy is growing much more rapidly than Western-allied economies, which strengthens China’s military and diplomatic position with respect to the West. North Korea continues tests of its nuclear and missile technology, with no effective response from the West. With the latest sanctions, China is telling North Korea not to rock the boat because the race is being won.
Watch for China’s long and short-term strategies to have an immediate effect on Kim Jong-Un by decreasing his public belligerence. Also watch for China to ease pressure on North Korea as soon as it either complies or public attention goes elsewhere. Without a Chinese-supported embargo on imports and exports to North Korea, plus enforcement by international naval vessels deployed to the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, the latest round of financial and oil restrictions will be ineffective; North Korea will continue to progress in developing and proliferating nuclear weapons and missile technology.