Why China Stands Behind a Country Few Else Will

Jacob D'Souza

September, 2017

Express (2013)

Express (2013)


The Korean Peninsula has remained a troublesome region for United State Presidents for the past decade and beyond. North Korea began testing nuclear weapons in 2006. However, suspicions regarding their nuclear program far preceded the start of weapons testing.

International actors, including President Obama and the European Union, have tried to manage the nuclear threat North Korea poses on the global community. In addition to the country’s nuclear program, North Korea has been involved in various confrontations with South Korea. In 2010, North Korea sunk a South Korean warship killing 48 military personnel.

The international community has responded to North Korea’s threats by attempting to diplomatically and politically isolate the country. United Nations Security Council has imposed numerous export restrictions, financial penalties, and weapons testing bans.

More recently, North Korea has made substantial advances miniaturising a nuclear warhead that can fit on a missile, while also increasing the frequency of their missile testing.

United States President, Donald Trump, has vowed to “solve” the current threat of North Korea. President Trump’s strategy however, puts China as an integral part of the solution. He has sent out numerous Tweets accusing China of not doing enough to bring North Korea in line, and warning that the United States would “solve the problem” if China did not “help”. Trump has also suggested that China’s exertion of influence on North Korea was a precondition to good relations in other aspects of the US-China relationship, including a favourable trade deal between the countries and cooperation on foreign policy matters, such as Taiwan.

The extent of the President Trump’s focus on China has been absolute. Besides consulting with South Korea and Japan, he does not appear to be making any diplomatic efforts to gain further international support. The effectiveness of this strategy aside - and it may well be effective – Trump strategy highlights just how reliant North Korea is on China for its very survival. 

North Korea’s primary trading partner is China, accounting for 85% North Korea’s net exports or $5.3 billion USD. China took advantage of a loophole in the United Nations sanctions, which allowed trade with North Korea if it helps the "livelihood" of citizens. China used this loophole to buy $1 billion a year in coal, one of North Korea’s major sources of export income. Additional to coal, China imports large amounts of iron, oil, and other minerals predominate in North Korea.

North Korea is thought to keep large reserves of foreign cash in Chinese banks to launder money in order to circumvent sanctions and maintain access to the global financial system. Chinese banks have purposefully weak compliance frameworks and the authorities are equally weak in enforcing them.

China has weathered persistent pressure from the international community and negative press coverage overseas in order to maintain its relationship with North Korea. While this may seem like a strange partnership for China, there are important reasons for it.

China’s geographical location, boarding North Korea, causes Chinese authorities concern about a possible refugee exodus if the state were to collapse due to war or regime change. Nearly 13 million citizens of North Korea are believed to live in poverty, with limited access to food, electricity, and basic goods outside of Pyongyang. Those who do escape to China in search of economic opportunity are immediately sent back. But the prospect of an uncontrolled surge of migration is enough to encourage Beijing to support a strong regime in Pyongyang who can control the movement of its population.

Furthermore, China may fear the collapse of North Korean may result in a re-unified Korea. The United States currently stations 30,000 soldiers in South Korea, along with significant naval assets and other military hardware.

China has long resented their presence, seeing it as a threat to its territorial sovereignty. The recent deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to the peninsula caused China significant worry in that it might also undermine China’s nuclear deterrent and ability to launch missiles in an offensive capacity

North Korea effectively acts as a buffer zone between China and the American military. Arguably, the reason the US military is deployed in such numbers is because of North Korea’s very existence and its aggressive behavioural tendencies.

However, in the eyes of China, nothing would be worse than the US military having unfettered access to mainland China. With a unified Korea, they would simply be across the Yalu River.

President Trump is correct in targeting China as the solution to the North Korean crisis. China is one of the limited countries able to exert influence over North Korea, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the existence of the state. However, President Trump will first need to convince Beijing that it is in their interest to put an end to the North’s nuclear ambition before he puts an end to America’s strategic patience with them.