Parul Trivedi, Research Intern, ICS
The relationship between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains the most enduring brothers- in arms relationship which was forged during the Korean War in 1950 and solidified with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1961. During the heydays of the cold war both Chinese and North Korean leaders described their relationship as ‘lip and teeth’ on the account of shared mutual interests and common ideology.
With the end of the cold war era in 1990s, three differences emerged between the two allies. First, China wanted North Korea to open up its economy but North Korea was reluctant to adopt such measures fearing regime collapse. Second, sticky issue was Beijing’s growing relations with South Korea which made Pyongyang uneasy. The third issue was the Beijing’s concern about North Korean nuclear Programme. Despite numerous differences between the two, it had been observed that Beijing has endeavored to maintain its traditional ties with DPRK as North Korea serves as a buffer state for China as well as PRC is desirous of maintaining stability in the Korean peninsula.
BEIJING’S STRATEGY TOWARDS NORTH KOREA UNDER XI JINGPING
Beijing’s foreign policy towards its North East Asian neighbors includes five no’s: no instability, no collapse, no nukes, no refugees and no conflict escalation. Before Xi Jingping assumed power China had a clear stance over the North Korea’s nuclear issue that it preferred stability over denuclearization and thus Beijing has not been forthcoming in implementation of sanctions. However, under Xi, Beijing supported UNSC resolution against DPRK in 2013 and began implementing international sanctions on North Korea which in North Korea’s views, such Chinese actions was a betrayal to their traditional ties. Xi by choosing to travel to South Korea in July 2014 before visiting North Korea, broke the tradition reflecting a preference for Beijing’s relations with Seoul over Pyongyang. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated further in 2016 with North Korea which began with its testing missile frequently. China had raised its voice on multiple occasions. For instance: According to U.S. media report: “China can no longer stand the continuous escalation of the North Korean nuclear issue at its doorstep” Another statement made by the official media of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) cautioned North Korea to ‘avoid making mistakes and warned’, if North Korea makes another provocative move, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC to adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to North Korea. Notwithstanding the fear that excessive pressure on North Korea could lead to regime collapse, in 2017, following Pyongyang’s continued testing ballistic missiles, Beijing not only supported UN backed sanctions but also implemented them earnestly. It is to be noted that:
In response to Chinese actions, North Korea upped the ante both in rhetoric and in action. In a response to commentaries in Chinese state media calling for more sanctions, the Korean Central News Agency warned PRC by reinstating that: ‘China had to better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK- PRC relations’. It was also added that the ‘DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China’ In fact, North Korean act of testing its 6th nuclear weapon hours before the BRICS Summit hosted by China in September 2017 was an act clearly to embarrass Beijing diplomatically to convey Pyongyang’s displeasure of Chinese support for sanctions.
REPAIRING THE TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP (2018-2022) Beijing’s approach of supporting international sanctions meant to convey the message to Pyongyang that undermining China’s interest would not be tolerated and will have its consequences and push North Korea to choose the path of diplomacy. However, when North Korea shifted its approach from confrontation to diplomacy towards United States in 2018, Beijing was concerned that Pyongyang was drifting away from China as well as its influence on Pyongyang was on decline and it appeared that its interests were threatened.
In an effort to reassert its influence in the changing Korean peninsula dynamics that was fast evolving, Beijing doubled down on its efforts to patch up things with Pyongyang. China hurriedly organized the first Kim- Xi Summit on April 14, 2018, ahead of inter- Korean and the US-DPRK Summit. The two leaders met four times over the span of one year. The last meeting was held in June 2019, during President Xi’s first state visit to North Korea. The last Chinese leader to visit Pyongyang was Hu Jintao in 2005. President Xi’s visit to North Korea was significant as it came following the failure of the second Summit between Kim and Trump in February 2019.
Since, the first Xi-Kim meeting, Chinese narrative of the bilateral relations began emphasizing the value of their traditional alliance relationship and filled with deep appreciation for warm comradeship in championing the socialist cause. President Xi promised to promote a ‘ long term, sound and stable’ relationship with North Korea and Korean leader Kim Jong Un also sent a message to Xi stating that “invincible friendship will be immortal on the road of accomplishing the cause of socialism as two countries marked the 70 years of their diplomatic relations”.
Since, the diplomatic rapprochement in 2018, Beijing once again began assuming the big brother role and started investing further in restoring its alliance with Pyongyang. On the occasion of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance in July 2021, the two countries renewed the Treaty for another 20 years as they had done before in 1981 and 2001. The growing diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries have also given impetus to restore the traditional party to party ties and furthermore, Beijing promised its support to the Korean Workers Party on its pursuit to a socialist economy. Since, 2018 China has been voicing its support for North Korea in the UN and argued for relaxing sanctions. For instance: Recently, China stepped up to cover North Korea in the UN by blocking the US bid to impose sanctions for its testing of cruise and hypersonic missiles in January 2022.
In conclusion, it can be inferred that under Xi Jingping China is desirous of enlarging its area of influence in the whole of North East Asian region with an increase in the Sino-US strategic power rivalry. Although China is much wary about North Korea’s nuclearization, but within the given context of growing Sino-US strategic rivalry China might have another calculation towards North Korea’s nuclear program as it would require a nuclear North Korea to restraint the growing US military presence in the Korean peninsula. Therefore, under Xi Jingping’s leadership China has been making efforts to achieve stability in the Korean peninsula by increasing its area of influence over the peninsula as it is geostrategically an outpost for consolidating power in the whole of North East Asian region. However, In near future, it is yet to be observed that whether Beijing’s blossoming relationship with Pyongyang with utmost patience and grudging tolerance for its nuclear programs will still continue if DPRK’S expanding missile programs begins to affect China’s regional and strategic interests in the region.
The Blog was written under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Priyanka Pandit, Ashoka-HYI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies Shiv Nadar University, India. The views expressed here are those of the author(s), and not necessarily of the mentor or the Institute of Chinese Studies.