Global Watch

China should walk the talk in Southeast Asia

North Korea.jpg

China and not the United States (US) hold the key to peace in Southeast Asia and should do more to bring North Korea to order.

Evident of the drama regarding North Korea’s aggressive nuclear weapons program is the international media’s fixation with the uncompromising reaction of the US.  Much of this because Donald Trump is US president, making the criticism extra venomous.

Much less is said about the crucial role of China, the third player in this unfolding drama.

Cold War relic

The current crisis is one of the few remaining flashpoints of the Cold War, when the ideological struggle between the West and the East was at its peak.

In essence, the ongoing military involvement of the US is the result of the leading role it played as chief contributor to implementation of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decisions to invoke Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.

Ironically, the absence of the Soviet Union, in protest to the presence of Taiwan, and not mainland (communist) China as permanent member of the UNSC in 1950, allowed for approving the recommendation that the invasion of South Korea by communist North Korea demanded a collective international response.

After North Korea’s military advance was checked, the UN forces – including South African military personnel – went on the offensive. Facing defeat China came to North Korea’s rescue and a military stalemate followed.

An armistice was reached in 1953, pushing with North Korea back across the 38th parallel, the border between the two Korea’s. But, no formal peace was signed which technically left South Korea and the US at war with North Korea to this day.

Since China intervened militarily to rescue North Korea from defeat, the two countries became even closer allies and China remains North Korea’s lifeline. Losing Beijing’s assistance and protection would be disastrous for North Korea.

North Korea in turn was considered beneficial to China in the sense that it formed a strategic buffer against the ideological opponents of the region, particularly South Korea and Japan, with American support.

Present-day advanced military technology has, however, all but nullified the geographical importance of North Korea as a Chinese buffersone.   


Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s eccentric leader, has become an embarrassment for China, and an obstruction to longer term Chinese goals – including China taking the center position of the fastest-growing, most dynamic region in the world.

It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach this goal while North Korea continuous with its provocative nuclear program. It could have the opposite outcome. Relations between Pyongyang and China have been frosty since Kim became leader, and promptly purged several key government figures with strong ties to China, including his uncle.

The murder earlier this year of Kim's half- brother, who was living in the Chinese territory of Macau has further soured ties.

The Chinese public has also started showing annoyance with perceived North Korean disrespect and lack of appreciation for the support and assistance China their country with very few other friends.

Kim certainly did nothing to improve relations when he detonated his sixth nuclear bomb on 13 September 2017.

It is said that as with previous tests, Kim has timed this latest test with exquisite precision, apparently trying to create maximum embarrassment for China to show Beijing that North Korea is not to be taken for granted anymore.

Carrying out a nuclear test on the eve of the BRICS meeting hosted by China, Kim not only took attention away from the meeting, but also revived fears of nuclear contamination in China’s northeast region.

Some analysts also contend that the latest test, by far the most powerful, was primarily aimed at pressuring China’s President Xi and not President Trump to act against North Korea, putting pressure on President Xi to placate the US – the long term aim being to get a reduction of US military presence in South Korea while Pyongyang keeps if current nuclear arsenal in exchange for a moratorium on further tests.


China is now facing not only a self-assured but also an unpredictable North Korea. Pyongyang’s nuclear capability further means China can never dominate the region as much as its leaders wants, and has good reason to be more nervous than before.

China has more nuclear-armed neighbors than any country in the world: Russia, India, Pakistan and now North Korea – a situation partly one of its own making.

The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program can be traced to a 1976 deal between Mao Zedong and Ali Bhutto, the then prime minister of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s rival, India, had tested its first nuclear bomb two years earlier. Pakistan had to match its main adversary.

Bhutto turned to China for, and received, assistance. China also viewed India, with whom it had fought a brief border war, a potential threat.

Realpolitics, then, as now, held sway and with China’s help Pakistan acquired nuclear weapon capability.  

Pakistan, in turn, assisted North Korea in its quest to become a country nuclear power. This happened, according to some analysts, with the full knowledge of Beijing. It is alleged that China was complicit in the Pakistan-North Korea deal, either encouraging Pakistan to share nuclear technology with North Korea, or looking the other way.


China is the only country with the means to pressure on North Korea to act more responsibly and, although admittedly a big ask in light of North Korea’s newly found confidence in its nuclear advances, Beijing has to act to come good for not doing more to curb North Korea’s provocative actions.

It has economic screws available to do so. China provides North Korea with more than 80% of its oil requirements and accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s trade.

 China’s apparent preparedness, previously rejecting the idea, to consider support for tougher UN sanctions against North Korea is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough.

Unless Beijing changes it view that a nuclear-armed North Korea is less dangerous to it than the possible political collapse of North Korea, followed by a refugee crisis in China, or a unified Korea under the control of the United States and  South Korea, the Korean Peninsula will remain a relic of the Cold War.

  If Trump is to blame for stoking the fire in the current crisis with his provocative remarks, China is equally to blame for neglecting to use its influence to force Pyongyang to act more responsible and less confrontational. 

by Garth Cilliers

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