The Chinese President Xi Jinping recently met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just a few days ahead of scheduled talks with Donald Trump at the G20 Summit. What are the strategic implications of stronger ties between China and North Korea, amidst escalating tensions in the South China Sea?
The People’s Republic of China is an East Asian country with the highest population in the world. The nation shares its borders with 14 other sovereign states including India, Pakistan, Russia, and North Korea. China has nuclear capabilities and has the world’s largest standing army. Chinese defence spending is the second highest in the world after the United States. China is being increasingly viewed as a global superpower, which challenges the status quo of the contemporary unipolar balance of power in international relations.
North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is an East Asian country spanning across the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. The country is surrounded by China and Russia to the North, and by South Korea to the South. A big part of North Korean history is its tumultuous relationship with South Korea. The Korean Peninsula was divided into two in the aftermath of World War II. Russia had occupied the North and the US had occupied the South. All unification efforts failed and the Social North invaded the capitalist South resulting in the Korean War. North Korea has nuclear capabilities and the 4th strongest army in the world. DPRK’s refusal to comply with the terms of successive nuclear deals has made the international community wary of its nuclear arsenal.
Xi Jinping’s trip to Pyongyang marks the first time a Chinese President has visited North Korea in 14 years. For the most part, China and North Korea share a healthy diplomatic relationship. China has even offered its military support to North Korea on multiple occasions, especially during the Korean War. This is partly because China has a vested interest in ensuring the survival of the current regime - it does not want to risk the influx of refugees from across the border in the event of a regime change. Bilateral trade between the two nations has also improved and China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, a share comprising a quarter of its exports and almost half of its imports.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries began to decline around 2017 when China voted in favor of UN sanctions against North Korea for its failure to comply with multilateral nuclear agreements. China participated in six-party talks to try and resolve the issue of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program, but the talks remain inconclusive. The sanctions adversely impacted the trade relationship between the two countries as well. North Korea responded to Chinese sanctions with heavy criticism of China and its policies, through local media.
While China and the US were once on the same page about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it seems that the scales have slightly shifted. Both China and North Korea are currently engaged in their own turf wars with the United States. For Xi Jinping, the issue centres upon the trade war which has resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions on both sides. For Kim Jong Un, the issue remains core to his desire to retain his nuclear aresenal. This situation serves as an opportunity to both East Asian leaders to improve diplomatic relations by bandwagoning against the adversary.
There is the added dimension of military tensions rising in the South China Sea. For several decades, the South China Sea has been a contentious region in South East Asia. China has adopted an expansionary policy in the South China Sea, claiming sovereignty over 80% of the region. The Chinese have established military bases on several disputed islands. Competing claims over the region have been made by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. The US, which has several allies in the region, claims that China’s rapid militarization in the region is intended to browbeat its neighbours.
To counter the Chinese military presence in the Pacific, the US has deployed several warships including aircraft carriers into Pacific waters and organized several “freedom of navigation exercises” in the last few months. North Korea has supported China’s claim on territory in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is located within the domain of a triple plate junction and is a major source for titaniferous magnesite, zircon, monazite, tin, gold and chromite. The South China Sea is also vital to some of the world’s busiest shipping routes accounting for 30% of global maritime trade and around 50% of global oil shipments. Chinese military expansion would certainly threaten American economic interests in the area.
From a balance of power perspective, the emergence of a multipolar world order has made South East Asia vulnerable in conflict between China and the US. China’s military expansions in the South China Sea might have been seen as a security threat to America’s western shores.
The prolonged stand-off between the US and China, both in the international market as well as the South China Sea, has defense experts rethinking about the possibility of war. If the talks between China and North Korea are able to improve their relationship, North Korea might prove to be a strong Chinese ally. Their combined military strength would definitely prove to be a deterrent to the US from escalating things further.
China does not yet consider the US to be an enemy. In fact, Xi Jinping is trying to salvage ties with the US to be able to recover from what is turning out to be a costly trade war.
It is our assessment that while stronger ties between China and North Korea could result in a strategic trade alliance, it won’t necessarily influence outcomes in the South China Sea. From a foreign policy perspective, we find it possible that the United States might be indifferent to a strengthened China-North Korea alliance. This is because they too are aware that China is still wary about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities due to the close proximity between the two nations.
We feel that even the possibility of war in the near future is slim. This is because the US and China are not the only countries involved. Before there is actual conflict, the US needs a show of support from its allies in the region. But this isn’t likely to happen. A war would completely destabilize the region. Countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines would suffer more harm in the short term compared to any long term gains they might experience. A war would simply not work in their favor.
We predict that the fate of US-China relations will be determined during the 2019 ASEAN summit, where the US will enter talks with India, Australia, and Japan about the establishment of a Quadrilateral Security Alliance. Such a military alliance would pose a tangible security threat to Chinese forces and this might put China on the defensive. We feel such an alliance is unlikely in the near future.