The launch of Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea on 4 July 2017 has sparked new tensions between United States, China and North Korea. The intercontinental ballistic missile has the capacity to reach 578 miles with the potential of reaching an altitude of 1700 miles. This would mean that the missile has the capability to get to Alaska, USA.

As a response to the North Korea’s missile launch, United States and South Korea held a ballistic missile drill on 5 July 2017 in the Sea of Japan to counter any attempt. However, the news of the drill broke within hours of the joint press statement by China and Russia in which they condemned the launch of ICBM by North Korea and in exchange demanded United States not to conduct military exercises with South Korea. The press statement indicates that both China and Russia want to address the issue on the table instead of using force.

North Korea’s latest missile test has created the rift between China and United States and many call it as an end of the ‘honeymoon period’ between the two countries. Trump, who called Chinese President, Xi Jinping, a ‘good person’ during Xi's visit to the United States in April 2017, had taken a harsh stance against him this week and called for him to ‘do more’ for denuclearization of North Korea or face repercussions. China is the biggest trade partner of North Korea and United States blames it for not imposing United Nations sanctions on North Korea that included banning of coal imports from North Korea. The food and fuel supplies to North Korea and coal imports from the country by China are considered as lifeline of the former’s nuclear project. The latest ICBM test by North Korea proves that the sanctions have remained unsuccessful in the denuclearization of North Korea, hence probing United States to put pressure on China. United States have threatened China with the proposal of new sanctions that would curtail the Chinese bank linked to North Korea. This has been criticized by China that does not want to be affected by the US sanctions. Moreover, United States has also authorized sales of arms to Taiwan in order to put pressure on Xi.

Although China claims to aim for denuclearization of the region, it fears destabilized North Korea more than a nuclear North Korea. China has been supporting Kim Jong-un’s regime with food and fuel supplies to avoid instability in the country. Moreover, the trade between the two countries have risen this year, i.e. there is a 15 % increase in the trade between China and North Korea in the first five months of year 2017 as compared to those in 2016. This indicates that China has taken limited measures to impose the UN Security Council sanctions aimed to deter North Korean nuclear program. To aim for denuclearization of the region, China had suggested to resort to the Six Party talks (between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and United States) and had aimed for the resumption of talks since its discontinuation in 2009.

There are a couple of reasons that China cannot cut off North Korea completely. Firstly, China’s priority is to have a stable Korean neighborhood; collapse of North Korea would create room for a United Korea as South Korea will take over the complete Korean region with the help of its ally, United States. This would make the lasting presence of the United States in the vicinity of China that will challenge the regional power structure. Moreover, United States is planning to test Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in July 2017. China has criticized the act and asks for peaceful settlement, as the use of force will create problems for China. Secondly, collapse of the North Korean regime would force refugees into China that will create problems for the country. China shares 1420 km long border with North Korea. The two provinces of China that share the border with North Korea, Jilin and Liaoning, have lower GDP compared to other coastal regions of China. The influx of refugees would create more problems for China that is already facing territorial issues with Tibet and Xinjiang.

The rift between China and United States appear to lie in the approach both countries take towards the denuclearization of North Korea. United States approach is aggressive; it wants to use force against North Korea and is even threatening China with sanctions and the sale of arms to Taiwan. Whereas, China regards the purpose of force unproductive and wants to solve the problem with negotiations. The use of force and sanctions against North Korea and China respectively, would aggravate the situation. Firstly, if United States attacks North Korea then North Korea will respond aggressively and the nuclear war will only create casualties and loss of lives. Secondly, if United States tries to put sanctions on China, then it may be backfired as China’s status of the second biggest economy in the world and emerging superpower has got it support from different countries of the world. Hence, imposition of sanctions by the super power on emerging super power will only create chaos in the world and may be repetition of another Cold War.

One then imagines that what could be the best possible approach in such situation? United States, China and North Korea need to come on one page and should revive Six Party Talks. The talks were discontinued by North Korea in the wake of resolution passed by UN Security Council condemning North Korea for the launch of satellite in April 2009. The revival of talks will foster dialogue process and will help in communicating each side’s picture clearly. This will also clear the picture of China’s approach towards North Korea as it had been unpredictable in the past; China agreed to adopt sanctions against North Korea in 2016, but 2017 has shown an increase in trade relations between the two countries. Moreover, instead of threat and sanctions, United States and China could offer economic incentives to North Korea. North Korea’s geographical location amidst strong economies such as China, Russia, Japan and United States would help its economy revive if it starts trade with these countries.

Amnah Amjad

Amnah Amjad has done BSc (Honours) in Political Science from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. She has keen interest in international relations, counter-terrorism strategies and peace studies. She can be reached at amnah.amjad[at]gmail.com

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