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Why China's ties with North Korea remain critical

By Hsin-Yi Lo - posted Thursday, 13 June 2013


In May 2013, Beijing demanded Pyongyang do what it could to ensure that 16 Chinese fishermen who were being held ransom by an armed North Korean vessel in the Yellow Sea were released safely. This incident greatly aggravated North Korea’s most prominent ally; there were reports that the state-run Bank of China closed trading with North Korea. To mend relations, North Korea sent Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-Hae on a special diplomatic mission to China and eventually the two sides agreed to maintain the alliance – contrary to recent speculation that China would finally sever ties. Perhaps Beijing’s decision to continually pardon Pyongyang is due to recent geopolitical tensions in the Asian region.

China and North Korea’s prolonged relationship is attributable to their shared experiences, political ideologies and goals in the Korean War (1950-1953). This set the scene for the future of China-North Korea relations. Both are communist states and have a common objective in halting US expansionism in Asia. Since the War, North Korea has relied heavily on China for economic support and, in turn, China has secured a loyal ally in the region.

Critics of this relationship admonish China as a staunch supporter of an authoritarian regime. However, world leaders have previously taken advantage of this connection to convince North Korea to terminate its nuclear programs. During the Six Party Talks, attended by the US, China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea, the US has often pressured Beijing to play a stronger role in persuading Pyongyang to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the past, North Korea has barely heeded this treaty and tenaciously continued with its nuclear ambitions. But since Choe’s visit to China, North Korea has unexpectedly agreed to resume nuclear disarmament discussions.

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Although we should credit China for this successful persuasion, it has continuously endured criticism for buddying up with the so-called “axis of evil” state. In 2004, the US accused the Bank of China of financing North Korea’s military. In May 2013, the United Nations and human rights groups condemned China for sending nine North Korean defectors back to their home country, as it was claimed they were very likely to be subject to inhumane treatment by their government. Allying with North Korea compromises somewhat China’s hard-earned efforts in building up a positive image on the international stage; e.g. “panda diplomacy”, promoting Chinese language and culture through Confucius Institutes at universities, and the very successful 2008 Beijing Olympics that captivated audiences around the world.

However, if China heeds to international pressure, then it will mean sacrificing a perhaps vital loyal ally in an increasingly turbulent Asia-Pacific region. The forecast of China’s continued rise and growing influence looms dark and gloomy for many Asian nations. Driven by the fear of Chinese regional hegemony, these nations are suspicious of China’s motives – especially regarding its alleged territorial expansion ambitions, such as China and Japan’s unresolved dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japanese). Last year, the situation was so tense that the world believed that the two countries might settle their disagreement through a maritime military showdown. This tension also flared up old wounds stemming from Japan’s military aggression towards China before and during the Second World War, leading to widespread anti-Japanese protests in China.

China is also competing with multiple other claimants for a collection of resource rich and uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. Of all the plaintiffs, Vietnam and the Philippines have taken the most assertive action against China. In October 2011, the Philippines held joint military exercises with the US as a way to warn China to back off from competing interests. Defence experts have also described increased purchases by South East Asian nations of intercontinental ballistic missiles and anti-missile technology, as compared to previous purchasing focus on artillery weapons and firearms. All of this points to the “China threat.”

In the midst of all these dramas, the US interferes to safeguard its interests and influence in the region, having labelled China as its “strategic competitor”. While there have not been any direct confrontations with China, the US has still sought ways to contain its rival. In December 2011, during the East Asia Conference, the US openly backed ASEAN nations in their claims for disputed zones. And in 2012, the US used the Shangri-La Dialogue as an opportunity to tell China not to be aggressive to its neighbours.

Evidently, there are still many challenges that lie ahead that impede China’s peaceful rise. Faced with mutual suspicions and maritime flashpoints, China feels vulnerable as it is surrounded by a group of nations that are either pro-US or feel threatened by China. Adding to this, the US is unwilling to surrender its position in the region by granting room for another rival. At such unpredictable times, perhaps it is understandable why China insists on maintaining ties with North Korea.

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About the Author

Hsin-Yi Lo is currently serving as the Project Officer at the National Ethnic & Multicultural Broadcasters' Council and Deakin Golden Key's Communications Officer.

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