China’s Only Ally

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Roman Harak

The 60th anniversary of a friendship treaty between North Korea and China is approaching. While relations between the neighbours are tense, Beijing has no choice but to support its old ally.

China’s leaders condemn the US for building alliances, in contrast to Beijing’s foreign policy, which advocates cooperation with all. In fact, China does have one formal ally – North Korea. In 1961, the two countries signed a ‘Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance’, an agreement which remains in force until revoked by either side. 11 July marks the treaty’s 60th anniversary, in theory a cause for special celebration, not only because of the old myth of the two countries being as close as ‘lips and teeth’, but also because 60 years represent a full cycle of the 12 animals and five elements in the Chinese calendar.

Strained Relations

But the reality is different. The treaty was born in the difficult circumstances of the Sino-Soviet split and a just-signed Soviet Union–North Korea treaty. It has not been observed scrupulously. For example, neither party should ‘take part … in any action or measure directed against the other Contracting Party’ (article 3) and should ‘continue to consolidate and develop economic, cultural, and scientific and technical co-operation’; yet in 2017 China joined UN sanctions designed to arrest the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme. The treaty also states that ‘the Contracting Parties will continue to consult with each other on all important international questions of common interest to the two countries’ (article 4); yet could anything require more consultation than the development nuclear weapons?

The Friendship Bridge across the Yalu river between China and North Korea is a misnomer. There is currently no love lost between China and North Korea, because there was never any love. China resented a lack of gratitude for help during the Korean war, in which Mao’s son died, along with 197,000 compatriots. A leitmotiv of Korean attitudes has been a centuries-old assertion of sovereignty, in the face of Chinese (or Japanese) attempts to exert control. North Korea resents its bigger neighbour, and China’s establishment of relations with South Korea in 1992 is seen as a betrayal. As one expert on North Korea at Renmin University in Beijing observed, even though China is still North Korea’s diplomatic backer and economic lifeline, ‘history has shown that Beijing’s influence and leverage over Pyongyang is rather limited’.

If there is to be a lasting peace in Korea, it will have to take account of the disparate interests of the two Koreas, Japan, the US and China

During Xi Jinping’s first five years in power relations were especially bad. The two leaders did not meet. Shortly after Xi Jinping took power, Kim Jong-un executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek, a fixture of the North Korean elite with powerful connections in China. In 2017, North Korean agents killed Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, who reportedly lived under Beijing’s protection in Macau. North Korea deliberately conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests (15 in 2015, 33 in 2016, and 10 by July 2017) at sensitive times for China. North Korea’s propaganda department declared that ‘the recent successfully developed new rocket Hwasong-12 is a nuclear transportation vehicle that can conduct attacks on the whole of China’. China’s agreement to UN sanctions on Pyongyang in 2017 severely strained relations. None of this is how ‘lips and teeth’ are meant to interact. Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be consistent and clever. He has used the nuclear threat to maintain sovereignty and to ensure that North Korea cannot be imposed upon by bigger powers who might wish to arrange peninsular affairs to their advantage.

Since 2018, there has been a superficial improvement in relations, but the underlying distrust remains. President Donald Trump’s overtures to North Korea threatened to cut China out of the traditional ‘hate triangle’. The efforts came to nothing, but they left Beijing keen to ensure that the possibility of the US and North Korea resolving their differences without considering Chinese participation and interests could not recur. Starting with an unannounced meeting in Beijing in March 2018, Xi and Kim have now met five times. Fraternal rhetoric has returned; sanctions, never assiduously enforced by Beijing, have loosened significantly. In June 2019, Xi spoke of new developments in relations and, in December, China sought concessions on sanctions at the UN.

Chinese support for sanctions is already waning; trade and smuggling is waxing

After the third Kim–Xi meeting in Beijing and the subsequent visit by the North Korean foreign minister to China in December 2018, a stream of North Korean cargo vessels began delivering sanctioned commodities to Chinese waters, while a number of foreign-flagged oil tankers began shipping oil to the country in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Later that year, a large fleet of flat-bottomed Chinese barges designed for inland navigation began perilously crossing the Yellow Sea, ferrying goods and commodities in and out of the country.

Prospects for Peace

If there is to be a lasting peace in Korea, it will have to take account of the disparate interests of the two Koreas, Japan, the US and China. Russia is no longer important, even if it has participated in the ‘Six Party Talks’. Unsurprisingly, those interests – in particular nuclear disarmament, reunification, US forces in Korea – remain unresolved, and may be irreconcilable.

For North Korea, nuclear disarmament and reunification are unthinkable, except as a North Korean take-over. The former assures its sovereignty and provides enormous influence, preventing the bigger powers making agreements over its head; the latter would represent a denial of history, a foregoing of the leaders’ powers and privileges, and raise the risk of retribution (which applies to a large number of people who benefit by serving the regime, a reason why it is not as unstable as some commentators might think).

For South Korea, reunification or absorption of the north would have to take place on Seoul’s terms. While it has long harboured hopes of reunification (under its system), it must also baulk at the costs of rebuilding the north and the practical difficulties of doing so. It must also worry about defence and its costs, given that a US departure from the peninsula would be a condition for reunification.

Japanwould no longer have to worry about Kim’s missiles and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons – provided that a united Korea did not retain them. But in the long term, the idea of a united, more powerful Korea would not appeal. Even now, despite regional conditions that might be expected to push South Korea and Japan closer together, relations remain strained.

For the US, the removal of a nuclear threat would be welcome. But reunification, while allowing a reduction in defence spending, would remove the wider rationale for its military deployments in Asia, including perhaps in Japan. It would also reduce wider South Korean reliance on the US, giving Seoul a freer rein in policymaking. This would represent a big geopolitical shift, not welcome to all in Washington.

China rarely states its interests in Korea clearly. In 2018, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper, listed four goals: denuclearisation; the withdrawal of the US military; the unification of the two Koreas; and the permanent neutrality of Korea. More realistically, in April 2017, the People’s Daily specified the safety and stability of China’s north-eastern provinces, including no nuclear contamination from tests or turbulence from refugees; no ‘hostile government’ in Pyongyang; and no US military presence. Around the same time Beijing also proposed a ‘dual suspension’ – a halt to major US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programs.

If the CCP faces a dilemma in balancing China’s international reputation and interests against the Party’s position and interests over North Korea, its current assertive mood suggests that it will favour the latter

The CCP’s ideal (accepting as it must that reunification under Pyongyang or some federal arrangement is unacceptable elsewhere) would have North Korea as a smaller version of China, with the regime abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions and maintaining one-party control, while implementing the same sort of economic reforms that China did. This would provide a safe buffer between China and the democratic south, with whom its trade and other relations are booming. If all parties to the Korean War were able finally to sign a peace, it would be possible to argue that there would be no further need for US troops on the peninsula, US–South Korean military exercises, or ballistic missile defence systems such as THAAD. Geography and economic relations would favour a gradual increase in Chinese influence. Reunification under the South Korean government would boost trade and investment ($284.5 billion in 2019). Chinese companies would be at the forefront of efforts to rebuild North Korea, and there would be a big market next to depressed north-eastern provinces, which would help their dire economic situation and depopulation.

The problem is that the CCP, and Xi Jinping in particular, are making resolution more difficult. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang still suffer from the traditional basic distrust. In CCP mythology, the sacrifices of the Korean war were a glorious victory, proof of Party superiority. Only last year, Xi made much of the 70th anniversary of ‘the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea’. Denying this history is to commit the crime of ‘historical nihilism’ and ‘tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance’. Worse, Chinese support for reunification under Seoul might be seen by many CCP members as a sign of weakness, both internally and externally. Despite the rhetoric of the superiority of the Chinese economic and governance model this would represent an abandonment of one of the five remaining communist countries.

The CCP would not welcome sharing a border with a capitalist country which is ideologically aligned with the US. While it would work hard to ensure that a united Korea would not remain a platform for US influence or its military, nevertheless, the re-unification of Korea under Seoul would be seen by some CCP members as a defeat in an increasingly tough geopolitical struggle against the US, a view which might undermine Party legitimacy.

Conclusion: Back to the Future

The CCP has struggled to control Pyongyang’s provocative behaviour. Kim has shown himself skilled in exploiting the US–China rivalry, as well as in using nuclear weapons as leverage, a weapon he is not going to relinquish. As the Chinese scholar Cheng Xiaohe has written, the mounting strategic rivalry is a major influence on US–China coordination on North Korea. Meanwhile, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are uncertain. In April 2021, Kim talked of facing ‘the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges’. The potential consequences of a collapse of the Kim regime – refugees and unrest in China’s north, the fate of nuclear weapons, materials and pollution, and domestic harm to the CCP’s legitimacy – all suggest that Beijing is condemned to continuing the difficult management of the North Korean problem.

Chinese support for sanctions is already waning; trade and smuggling is waxing. At the very least, if smuggling is not being encouraged, it is certainly not being policed. Coal transfers are happening under the nose of Chinese naval ships, while North Korea’s oil smuggling fleet routinely takes shelter in China’s territorial waters. This risks becoming another point of friction with the US and its allies.

If the CCP faces a dilemma in balancing China’s international reputation and interests against the Party’s position and interests over North Korea, its current assertive mood suggests that it will favour the latter. This is not good news for the UN or the US. Nor is it good news for the resumption of the Six Party Talks. The appointment of the ex-ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, to be China’s Special Envoy – a post empty for two years – suggests to some that ‘China sees renewed diplomacy on the horizon’. More likely, it is merely a cost and content free way of underlining a return to China–North Korea relations as they were before the frosty period of 2012–17.

The five countries most involved in talks may wish for quiet in Korea over the next 18 months. Japan and South Korea have elections coming up, while the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, at which Xi Jinping is expected to enter a third term in power, will take place in late 2022. Xi would not welcome any distraction. He may have to be more indulgent towards his neighbour, including on sanctions. But Kim does not like quiet, and President Joe Biden may need to pay him attention and rebuild the trust squandered by Trump.

The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship on 11 July will have to be commemorated. Even if the CCP might wish to invoke article 7 and terminate the treaty, it must continue to grin and bear it. Not so much ‘lips and teeth’ as gritted teeth.


Charles Parton OBE

Senior Associate Fellow

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James Byrne

Director, OSIA

Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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