Report

‘It Was Like Having the Chinese Government in the Room With Us’

China’s method for blocking sanctions regimes.

un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

In the summer, U.S. authorities provided the U.N. panel of experts for North Korea with a satellite photograph of a North Korean ship transferring coal to a Chinese-flagged vessel, a clear violation of a U.N. embargo aimed at cutting off Pyongyang’s ability to finance its illicit development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But what grabbed the U.N. sanctions experts’ attention was the presence of a Chinese coast guard ship passively watching the transaction play out.

The photograph proved highly embarrassing to Chinese authorities in Beijing and prompted the panel’s Chinese expert to mount a vigorous effort to block the photo from appearing in the panel’s latest report documenting U.N. sanction violations. In a written response, China chided the expert panel, saying it is “completely normal” for Chinese coast guard vessels to patrol in the region and asked the panel “not to include in its report unverified information” about the Chinese ship, saying it was a matter of national security.

Sanctions have never been more popular, but the system for enforcing them at the United Nations is breaking down. In this two-week series, FP looks at why that is and what can still be done to fix it.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

In the summer, U.S. authorities provided the U.N. panel of experts for North Korea with a satellite photograph of a North Korean ship transferring coal to a Chinese-flagged vessel, a clear violation of a U.N. embargo aimed at cutting off Pyongyang’s ability to finance its illicit development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But what grabbed the U.N. sanctions experts’ attention was the presence of a Chinese coast guard ship passively watching the transaction play out.

The photograph proved highly embarrassing to Chinese authorities in Beijing and prompted the panel’s Chinese expert to mount a vigorous effort to block the photo from appearing in the panel’s latest report documenting U.N. sanction violations. In a written response, China chided the expert panel, saying it is “completely normal” for Chinese coast guard vessels to patrol in the region and asked the panel “not to include in its report unverified information” about the Chinese ship, saying it was a matter of national security.

In the end, the panel reached a compromise: It would limit the photo to a confidential annex of the report that would not be released to the public. But the panel report included a written description of the photograph, plus a footnote indicating one of the panel experts objected to the inclusion of any reference to the Chinese patrols.

This episode provides the latest snapshot in a decadeslong drama featuring China and the United States over the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea and other rogue countries. More than a decade of sanctions has deepened Pyongyang’s isolation and stunted its economy, but they have failed to achieve their primary objective: halting North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which the country continues to fund through a maze of illicit enterprises, including the sale of weapons technology, cyber-extortion, and coal exports.

It also underscores the contradiction between Beijing’s attempt to assert itself as a champion of multilateralism while it persistently seeks to air brush out the record of its failure to live up to those commitments. Debate over China’s commitment to sanctions comes at a particularly fraught moment in U.S.-Chinese relations, as Beijing seeks to more forcefully assert its role as a global leader and the Biden administration increasingly seeks to portray China as a lawless and irresponsible world power.

In recent months, the United States has expressed increasing concern about China’s failure to enforce sanctions. In an April letter to Congress, Naz Durakoglu, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, said since August 2018, the United States proposed sanctioning 50 individuals, entities, and vessels allegedly violating North Korea sanctions, including 26 individuals and vessels between May 2020 and April 2021. The vast majority involved Chinese entities or entities linked to China, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the matter.

In February, the United States and other G-7 countries delivered a formal diplomatic démarche to Beijing and the Chinese mission to the United Nations documenting China’s “failures to implement and enforce sanctions relating to [North Korea],” according to the April letter. The démarche included specific examples of North Korea-related maritime activities occurring in Chinese territorial waters or involving Chinese-flagged vessels.

“The work of the [North Korea] Panel of Experts is fundamental to the implementation of international sanctions against North Korea,” it added. “The semi-annual reports of the Panel are some of the most objective and influential sources of information on sanctions violations and serve as a touchstone for international cooperation on sanctions implementation.”

“China and Russia have gotten better at putting pressure on the panel members to take stuff out of the reports.”

But some former panel members feel the council’s chief champions on the Security Council—Britain, France, and the United States, known informally as the P3—have not responded forcefully enough to China and Russia’s efforts.

“There are the twin forces of a weakening of resolve among the P3 to fight this stuff and the determination and efficacy of the Chinese and Russians to undermine it,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the former U.S. representative on the panel. “China and Russia have gotten better at putting pressure on the panel members to take stuff out of the reports.”

“One problem is the U.S. was constrained by the interagency process and declassification process,” she added. “The panel needs actual evidence. The U.S. government is not upping its game fast enough.”

The North Korea panel is distinct from most other U.N. sanctions panels, which employ independent experts on arms trafficking, financial crimes, and regional politics to investigate sanction violations. It is comprised of representatives handpicked by the Security Council’s five major powers—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and other governments, such as South Korea and Japan, that have a direct interest in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But big-power confrontations over North Korea extend to many other parts of the world, where China and Russia have worked closely together to check other expert panels’ authorities.


China's foreign minister Wang Yi (left) shakes hands with North Korea's foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 2, 2018.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) shakes hands with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 2, 2018. KIM WON-JIN/AFP via Getty Images

China has made no secret of its ambivalence toward U.N. sanctions, which it views as a tool of Western hegemony. But for decades, it has gone along with sanctions, withholding its veto and, in some cases, openly backing the imposition of punitive measures, including in North Korea, where it hoped sanctions could get the United States and North Korea back to political talks aimed at ending the peninsula’s decadeslong state of war.

But behind the scenes, China has sought to use its growing influence at the United Nations to whittle away such sanction regimes power and efficacy. Much of that influence involves checking the authority of U.N. sanctions enforcers on the U.N. panel of experts for North Korea, but it has also targeted expert panels in Africa, where it recently blocked the appointment of a new slate of sanctions experts for the mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a move that effectively ground investigations to a halt. Moscow joined Beijing in holding up the panel.

Beijing’s strategy has largely focused on sanitizing investigations that have shed light on Chinese sanctions violations and blocking the reappointment of panel experts that have uncovered evidence of Chinese weaponry in territory subject to U.N. sanctions.

China’s hardball strategy isn’t new. Nearly a decade ago, China blocked the release of a panel report detailing armed groups use of Chinese ammunition in Darfur, Sudan, in violation of the U.N. arms embargo. The panel never accused China of violating the sanctions, considering it more likely that ammunition was exported legally to Sudan, where it was then sold to armed groups in Darfur. But China refused to cooperate with the investigation and subsequently blocked the German expert who uncovered the Chinese shells from having his contract renewed, effectively kicking him off the panel.

But China has gradually pursued new means of constraining the inspectors. For instance, it has prohibited expert panels from seeking information on sanctions from Taiwan, which has extensive business, intelligence, and security interests in the region; China’s representative has insisted that any reference to Taiwan include a clause saying it is a province of China. Beijing has also required all requests for information from Hong Kong-based entities to be channeled through China’s mission to the U.N., slowing down the panel’s investigations. China, along with Russia, also used its position on the U.N. budget committee to limit the financial resources available to sanctions experts.

“It was difficult to get satellite imagery, particularly the latest images, because of the amount of money required to purchase it, and China and Russia were active on the [U.N.] Fifth Committee that allocates the money,” said Neil Watts, a South African who served on the North Korea panel from 2013 to 2018. “I got the impression that China would view it as an intrusion of their territorial sovereignty.”

China’s efforts to contain U.N.’s sanctions panels have been particularly strenuous and successful over North Korea, which shares a border with China—its biggest trading partner. In contrast to other sanctions panels—which are composed of independent experts—the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea draws its experts from China, Russia, and the United States, who exhibit varying degrees of independence. China’s representative on the panel acts as a surrogate for the Chinese foreign ministry and would routinely seek instructions from the Chinese mission as the panel debated on what to include in its reports. “The Chinese member of the panel would call the mission during our report negotiations,” said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. “It was like having the Chinese government in the room with us.”

The Chinese panel expert, sometimes with the backing of his Russian counterpart, has sought to remove, question, or downplay information that could prove embarrassing to the Chinese government.

In recent months, the Chinese panel expert—sometimes with the backing of his Russian counterpart—has sought to remove, question, or downplay information that could prove embarrassing to the Chinese government. The Chinese and Russian experts challenged a section of the report, based on information from an unnamed U.N. member state saying 4.8 million metric tons of coal and other sanctioned materials had been exported from North Korea to China, arguing the information “requires verification.”

A series of internal U.N. accounts of meetings between Chinese officials and expert panels reveal constant interrogation of the experts’ tactics and their reliance on foreign intelligence sources to make their case. In a typical exchange in the delegates’ lounge in January 2017, Sun Lei, a diplomat from the Chinese Mission to the United Nations, urged a group of panel members to not name several Chinese banks, which were being scrutinized for their facilitation of North Korean sanctions evasion.

“Counsellor Sun stated that China preferred these banks and cases not be disclosed in the Panel’s report,” according to a note of the meeting. “He also stated that if [North Korea] is antagonized, it will react strongly, which may impact any sort of cooperation in the future in the long run.”

He also expressed irritation with the frequent information requests related to potential sanctions violations involving Chinese nationals or entities. “China does not want to be bothered with so many cases, letters, and etc.,” he told the experts.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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