Pyongyang Is Playing Washington Against Beijing

China is finding it harder and harder to steer its troublesome ally.

Two men sit holding North Korean and Chinese flags near Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 20, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the country.
Two men sit holding North Korean and Chinese flags near Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 20, as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the country. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

On July 31, North Korea conducted its second missile test in a week, launching two short-range ballistic missiles from near the port of Wonsan. North Korean media reported that the tests were a “solemn warning” to South Korea about its planned military exercise with the United States in August and its purchase of U.S. fighter jets.

That won’t have pleased Beijing, which has long been frustrated by the provocations of both its only formal ally and the United States. Although China’s response was muted, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking all parties concerned to make positive efforts to promote denuclearization, Beijing has been pushing for both the United States and North Korea to, in its words, “cherish the hard-won momentum of dialogue and deescalation.” Unsurprisingly, China has criticized sporadic unilateral, aggressive U.S. behavior, attempting to push President Donald Trump toward a reassurance strategy of reducing sanctions and military presence.

While not quite as open about its criticism of North Korea, China has been equally unhappy with the country’s provocations and has urged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to maintain a moratorium on all testing to allow for negotiations to take their course. In response to previous North Korean missile tests, China has almost always condemned them and reiterated its commitment to talks to reduce tensions. Moreover, China fears that North Korean provocations provide the United States excuses to deepen military cooperation with South Korea and Japan, which could intensify the situation on the peninsula and also be directed at Beijing.

But while China was once seen as an indispensable mediator, Beijing may be losing its influence over the denuclearization process. North Korea has become more of an independent actor, adeptly playing each country off another. The strategy is nothing new, but Kim’s proactive diplomacy certainly is. For his first six years as North Korea’s leader, Kim never once left the country on an official visit, nor did his counterparts come to Pyongyang to visit. But over the past 16 months, the leader of a country often referred to as a “hermit kingdom” has conducted major and historic summits with the U.S., Russian, South Korean, and Chinese presidents and has met the leaders of Vietnam and Singapore.

All this proactive North Korean diplomacy creates challenges for China, which wants to ensure any resolution to the North Korean issue favors its national interests—that is, an increase in China’s relative influence on the peninsula. This requires maintaining a great deal of influence over Kim. The North Korean leader, meanwhile, is most likely seeking better relations with other countries in order to ensure that cooperation with China is more on his terms. China also wants the United States to continue to see Beijing as an indispensable mediator—which becomes less likely the more interaction Kim and Trump have without China’s direct involvement.

In response, China has made some important but nuanced changes to its own strategy to ensure continued influence over its difficult neighbor. First, it has brought the two sides closer together economically. In the first half of 2019, China-North Korea trade increased by 14.3 percent (year on year) to a total of $1.25 billion. During that same period, Chinese exports to North Korea rose 15.5 percent while imports rose 3.2 percent. This all despite the international sanctions on North Korea. Reports show that China allows certain transits through and ship-to-ship transfers in its waters for prohibited goods to North Korea, and the United States recently indicted a Chinese company for evading sanctions on materials that help Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Beijing has also attempted to deepen its diplomatic relationship with North Korea. Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping have had five high-level summits in the past 16 months, after years of never meeting. Most recently, in June, Xi visited Pyongyang, the first time a Chinese leader has been to North Korea in 14 years. The purpose of these meetings, many of which took place right before Kim met with Trump, was to coordinate approaches and provide an opportunity for China to keep the reins tight on Pyongyang. That has been matched with an expansion of ties across the board—since 2018, cultural, sport, and political interactions have reached all-time highs.

And while China has been reluctant to encourage Russian involvement in its sphere of influence, it has begun to work more closely with Moscow to protect its equities on the Korean Peninsula. Through adept diplomacy, China has made “Moscow is increasingly receptive to Beijing’s agenda,” according to Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Granted, Russia’s role is far from decisive: Russia-North Korea trade in 2018 totaled just $34 million, significantly less than the $2.43 billion between China and North Korea in 2018. But Moscow can support Chinese initiatives on the U.N. Security Council—as it did for the 2017 resolution on the “freeze for freeze” proposal—or play bad cop when certain initiatives, such as softening sanctions against North Korea, are desirable but too politically costly for Beijing to lead.

And the cooperation goes beyond the diplomatic sphere. The two countries have been engaging in more sophisticated combined exercises, including Vostok 2018, which was the first time the exercise covered an interstate conflict scenario to test the kind of “joint defensive and counterattack operations capabilities” that would be relevant to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Lastly, it appears that China has reduced the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in its North Korea policy to pave the way for more active diplomacy. When tensions were rising, not only between the United States and North Korea but also China and North Korea, China engaged in a number of military exercises near North Korea. For example, in late April 2017, the PLA conducted live-fire drills near the China-North Korea border, and there were rumors of a Chinese troop buildup close to North Korea—though the Chinese Defense Ministry denied such nonroutine preparations. Also, at least three of the major exercises had been carried out in waters close to North Korea, and China’s strategic rocket force practiced shooting down incoming missiles over these waters only days after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. These drills were large and public, partly to issue a clear warning to North Korea about the consequences of its unwillingness to accommodate Chinese interests. Recently, while it cannot be ruled out that some exercises may be in preparation for a Korea contingency given their locations near the Korean border, China has kept such activities small in scale, low-key, and relatively quiet.

To maintain enough influence to secure its own interests on the peninsula, China may have to consider doing more to improve its relationship with North Korea. Luckily for Beijing, the strategic environment is conducive to such efforts. With South Korea and Japan at each other’s throats, Beijing is better positioned to coordinate more closely with Seoul on a softer approach of positive incentives for good North Korean behavior, a strategy Japan and the United States oppose. And with the ongoing trade war and already poor relations with the United States, Beijing has less to lose if it pushes for U.N. sanctions relief for Pyongyang or at the very least slackens its own enforcement of those in place.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last week to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, China is willing to create “favorable conditions” to help restart discussions between Washington and Pyongyang. Unfortunately for the United States, what China has in mind could Beijing to have greater influence over the diplomatic process and push us further from denuclearization.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She is also a foreign policy and defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
 Twitter: @osmastro

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