North Korea is a nuclear weapon power, irrespective of recognition. China is its closest ally, despite the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is said to have eliminated most of the old guard among the Chinese sympathisers.
North Korea has been testing long missiles and also patience of some of the powerful nations. US President Donald Trump has just told the United Nations that his patience with North Korea may be running out .
Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” referring to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man… on suicide mission” in spite of China being its most potent defender. Did Donald Trump really think hard about China before making the high octane statement at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) yesterday?
After all, despite setbacks, China has not deserted North Korea. It has also not given any indication that it has drifted from it North Korean policy as defined by Mao Zedong. The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong had likened the closeness between China and North Korea with that of “lips and teeth.” Will Trump be able to separate North Korean “lips” from Chinese “teeth”?
This question arises because at UNGA Donald Trump said, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”
THE TRIANGULAR STORY
For decades, China has been defending North Korea against hostility of the US and the western bloc. Chinese People’s Liberation Army fought alongside the forces of North Korea in the Korean war.
China is the dominant food and fuel supplier of North Korea. An overwhelming 85-90 per cent foreign trade of North Korea happens with China even though Russia and India are its next two big and emerging players.
In recent times, especially after Kim Jong-un displayed signs of turning his back on China, Beijing has drifted a bit to align with the US in stifling North Korean economy. China has on a couple of occasions sided with the US in imposing tighter sanctions on North Korea.
On August 5, China voted for stricter measures against North Korea as sought by the US. But, it made sure that supply of fuel and medicines to North Korea is not blocked completely. The US had to leave that window open in return for Chinese vote at the UNSC.
CHINA IS NOT HAPPY WITH KIM JONG-UN
Since assuming control of the hermit nation in 2012, Kim Jong-un has been suspicious of China. In Kim Jong-un’s estimate, China’s long term plan is to seize control of North Korea. He has also resisted China as it attempted to impose its own model of economic reforms.
Instead, Kim Jong-un introduced his own ideas as economic reforms, which have resulted in higher growth in North Korea. Its economy grew at 3.9 per cent last year. This was the highest growth rate since the turn of the century. Private sector’s share in North Korea’s current GDP is about half.
China is also not happy with North Korea’s repeated long-distance missile tests and nuclear explosions. Kim Jong-un irked China by firing rocket as President Xi Jinping made efforts to end Doklam stand off after over 70 days in order host BRICS leaders at Xiamen earlier this month.
Cracks in the China-North Korea friendship have come to surface. There is growing sense in Chinese intelligentsia that China and North Korea are no longer brothers-in-arms under Kim Jong-un as they used to be. Interestingly, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have not met yet for talks. This is a huge break from tradition that if there is a new leader at Pyongyong, he would meet the Chinese president.
Nuclear tests and Kim Jong-un’s public announcements that North Korea has amassed nuclear weapons (each 10 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima and small enough to be fitted on a missile) has left China worrying about region’s security.
China has responded with some penal measures like a blanket ban on coal imports from North Korea and supply of diesel and gas to that country. Trade regulations were redesigned in a way to desist big Chinese firms from doing business with North Korean companies or the government.
But, the small companies from China still find trade with North Korean entities lucrative enough to keep it going. This is working North Korea’s way. In fact, it is believed that it was the Chinese attempt at stifling trade with North Korea encouraged Kim Jong-un to introduce economic reforms in the country and allow private sector emerge as significant players.
DID TRUMP MISREAD JINPING?
With growing mistrust between China and North Korea, Trump administration seems to have believed that Beijing would completely desert Pyongyang in the event of armed conflict with the US and allied forces.
But, Chinese policy with regard to North Korea vis-a-vis the US since the Barrack Obama days has been very simple, that is, of balancing off. Two principles have been put forth by the Chinese side for the US to adopt in dealing with North Korea. These are, “freeze for freeze” and “no war, no chaos, no nukes”.
Under “freeze for freeze” offer, China has proposed that the US should stop or reduce the scale of military exercises with Japan (India does a separate Malabar naval exercise with Japan and the US). In return, Kim Jong-un regime would stop nuclear and long-distance missile tests.
Under “no war, no chaos, no nukes” offer, China proposed that the US should promise no war with North Korea and move away from its policy of “strategic strangulation” of Kim Jong-un regime pushing it to edge of collapse that would lead to total chaos. In return, North Korea would stop its nuclear weapons programme.
But, then there is a problem. It is true that Beijing is irked at North Korea’s recalcitrant behaviour but the reports from China suggest that Xi Jinping considers Donald Trump too unpredictable to trust for long-term plans.
STILL TRUMP IRKED JINPING AT UNGA
Over a decade or so, China has succeeded in establishing itself as the other pole of geostrategic balance particularly in Asia-Pacific region. China has substantial stake in North Korea and while Trump seeks submission of Pyongyang, he cannot achieve this without support from Beijing.
But, at the UNGA, Trump might just have irked China not less than North Korea. Slamming North Korea, Trump said, “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life.
And, then, referring to Chinese relations with North Korea, Trump said, “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict. No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.”
At another point Trump clubbed China with Russia accusing both of pursuing same ideology of territorial expansion by unfair means, saying, “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
Donald Trump denounced Chinese political philosophy describing it “cruel” system of governance. Trump said, “From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”