The prospect of a North Korean nuclear arsenal can’t be promising in Beijing’s view – but appears to be preferrable to a scenario where the regime in Pyongyang would collapse and give way to South Korea’s political system, with US military close on its heels.
Given that, it is no great surprise that China doesn’t agree to sanctions that could endanger the very survival of the North Korean regime. And given that, the sanctions Beijing agreed to anyway, in negotiations with Washington’s mission to the UN that were concluded on Thursday, look as if they were unusually biting after all, even if stopping short of causing Pyongyang fatal or near-fatal calamities. After all, the sanctions’ effect depends not only on what the Security Council agrees to, but also on how far North Korea’s trading partners, including China, are prepared to go in implementing them.
What made Beijing agree to the resolution draft that should be voted on shortly? Not least fear of a regional arms race.
A Foreign Ministry official confirmed that China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin requested a meeting with South Korea’s Ambassador to Beijing Kim Jang-soo,
KBS World Radio, South Korea’s foreign broadcasting service, reported on Febuary 9.
The official told Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency that China conveyed its stance on the launch of the THAAD negotiations during that meeting. Asked about what stance China had expressed, the official said it is not appropriate to reveal content from consultations held via diplomatic channels,
the KBS report continued.
The confirmation came as China’s Foreign Ministry announced on Monday that Liu urgently summoned the South Korean ambassador and protested the launch of South Korea-U.S. negotiations on deploying the U.S. THAAD system on the Korean Peninsula.
In her speech to parliament, South Korean president Park Geun-hye also conjured THAAD:
The Government is making sure our military readiness posture is solid and is also making thorough preparations for nonmilitary provocations including cyber- attacks and acts of terrorism in public places.
To maintain robust deterrence against the North, the Government is enhancing the Korea-U.S. combined defense capability and engaging in consultations with the United States to improve our alliance’s missile defense posture. The start of formal consultations to deploy the THAAD system to US Forces Korea, as announced on February 7, is also part of these efforts.
Eleven days earlier, Park had been on the phone, talking to Chinese party and state leader Xi Jinping. The conversation didn’t appear to bear fruit, and certainly not the way Park had hoped for. China was “still unprepared” to “think about this in larger strategic terms”, Yonhap newsagency quoted Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Pollack was also quoted as pointing out
how much effort Park has put in to strengthen relations with China and build personal ties with Xi, including her attendance at a massive Chinese military parade in September that was shunned by Western leaders.
“President Park’s expectation, I think legitimate expectation, was that she wanted a different answer from China. She’s made a lot of commitment to China,” the expert said, noting that Park risked domestic and international criticism to attend the September parade.
“She expected something in return, and so far, she has not received that,” he said.
Broadly speaking, Seoul’s plans for tough sanctions against Pyongyang had been frustrated. But there was a pressure point on Beijing. While Seoul had reportedly long been reluctant – or ambiguous – about the idea of deploying THAAD as part of American military defense, the South Korean leadership quickly warmed up to it during the past six or seven weeks.
And Beijing – not terribly successfully, it seems – tried to find an effective line in its communications with South Korea. In a meeting with Kim Jong-in, leader of South Korea’s largest opposition party, Chinese ambassador Qiu Guohong (邱国洪) – quoted by Chosun Ilbo as in turn quoted by Huanqiu Shibao –
[…] emphasized that Sino-South Korean relations could thus be negatively affected, as mentioned at the beginning of this [Huanqiu, that is] article. The [Chosun Ilbo] report says that Qiu Guohong had expressed the Chinese position in three points. Firstly, the South Korean government says it would limit the radar reach and lower the performance of ‘THAAD’, but the Chinese government cannot possibly believe that. As a friend, China can believe South Korea’s promises, but the problem is that America has all powers in the deployment, the upgrades, and adjustments made to ‘THAAD’. In the end, China and Russia would become target objects, too.” Secondly, this [THAAD] issue would destroy the regional strategic balance, cause an arms race, and fire up nervousness and disquiet.” Ambassador Qiu reminded the South Korean side of the question of how South Korea’s seucrity should, under such circumstances, be guaranteed? His last point was that “the South-Korean-American consultations concerning ‘THAAD’ had, to some extent, dispersed the international community’s unanimous reaction concerning sanctions against North Korea. Without this issue, maybe there would be a new, passed, UN resolution already.”
The South Korean government wasn’t amused and summoned Qiu to the foreign ministry on Wednesday to discuss his comments during his talks with the country’s opposition leader. This was no dramatic response to a questionable Chinese move, but an unusually strong reaction by South Korean standards, in its relations with Beijing. And there is no indication that Seoul will drop the idea of THAAD deployment again, after what appears to have been a successful game of hardball with Beijing, forced upon the clestial kingdom by three unruly barbarians: America, South Korea, and – not least – the North Korean “ally”.
On Thursday, the day when Beijing’s and Washington’s missions to the UN agreed to the resolution draft on sanctions against North Korea, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi apparently struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that the decision was ultimately up to South Korea, and China understood the desire of the United States and South Korea to ensure the defense of their own countries. However, China’s legitimate security concerns also needed to be taken into account, Reuters quoted Wang as saying – an explanation must be provided to China.