The DPRK has insulted China with its latest test. But the timing means that there could be little reprisalby John Everard / September 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is not just the USA that is angry at North Korea’s nuclear test. China, too, is furious but is unlikely to take strong action. Other countries, though also concerned, will have little say in resolving the situation.
China has been insulted. North Korea, a country for which many Chinese sacrificed their lives in the Korean War, has repeatedly ignored Chinese warnings not to proceed with its nuclear programmes. On 27 April Secretary Tillerson told Fox News that the Chinese had confirmed they would take sanctions action of their own in the case of another test.
At earlier stages of its internal debates China may have been contemplating even more radical action. On 5 April Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Communist Party, published an article claiming that if the security and stability of north-east China were threatened the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would launch attacks on DPRK nuclear facilities. The article was quickly withdrawn, but its appearance was significant.
Nevertheless, not only did North Korea proceed with the test but did so just as President Xi Jinping was welcoming his BRICS colleagues to a meeting in Xiamen—and just six weeks before the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party at which the next generation of China’s leadership will be selected.
This was a calculated slap in the face. Pyongyang knew very well that China would be deeply embarrassed by a test during the BRICS summit but would be anxious to avoid any instability on the Korean Peninsula in the run up to the congress. Since China is always concerned that stiffer sanctions might plunge North Korea into chaos, Pyongyang will have reckoned that a test just now would minimise the chances of China’s following through on its sanctions threat.
Had the North Koreans tested a few months ago, it is just possible that China would have decided that this crossed a red line and reacted sharply. Now, it is likely that any radical proposals have been set aside. There are no signs of unilateral Chinese sanctions—let alone of military action—against North Korea, and although there have been media reports that the Security Council is considering an oil embargo, China will be deeply reluctant to agree to this.