News analysis

N. Korea's N-test may work in China's favour

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces in Pyongyang, in an image released by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces in Pyongyang, in an image released by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Since North Korea caught the world off-guard with its fourth nuclear test last week, the onus has quickly been placed on China to deal with the recalcitrant communist state.

Regional pressure mounted and the United States criticised China for being too soft on its neighbour.

But China may still be able to glean a few positives from the test, some analysts told The Straits Times.

They pointed out that Beijing may be able to use its arbitrator role to win goodwill, while the test could distract attention from the South China Sea dispute.

"North Korea's latest nuclear challenge is a reminder that China and the US have more common interests than differences," noted Peking University's foreign affairs expert Wang Dong.

China is already talking about resuming six-party disarmament talks, which have stalled since 2008.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung Se by phone last Friday that efforts should be made to pave the way for negotiations to resume.

This was a role that China played following North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, which led to the resumption of six-party talks and an implementation agreement the following year.

"If talks are resumed, at the very least there will be a slowdown in North Korea's nuclear programme," said Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, who has researched Sino-North Korea ties. "Beijing could present itself as a reliable arbitrator, as it did in the past."

The tensions caused by last Wednesday's nuclear test might also be a source of distraction for the US in the South China Sea, where tensions have been rising as China is seen to be increasingly assertive in its territorial claims.

"There is no inherent reason why this should upset the schedule for the US' future freedom of navigation operations and overflights in the South China Sea," said Dr Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Lowy Institute.

"But, in practice, even the US has finite constraints on its ability to respond to competing demands such as the South China Sea and North Korea at the same time."

For Beijing, however, reining in North Korea is not without its difficulties, given the increasing unpredictability of the country under Mr Kim Jong Un's leadership.

Last week was the first time that Pyongyang has conducted a nuclear test without warning Beijing.

Following the test, US Secretary of State John Kerry said China's efforts to rein in the reclusive state had been a failure and that "we cannot continue business as usual".

But despite accusations that Beijing has not been assertive enough with Pyongyang, Seoul-based analyst Daniel Pinkston of Troy University feels that "there is probably nothing China could do, short of using military force to achieve North Korea's nuclear disarmament".

Indeed, under President Xi Jinping's leadership, China has shown it can be uncompromising with its neighbour.

It has supported sanctions, tightened exports and enacted stricter banking rules against North Korea, despite critics accusing it of being lax in implementation.

Mr Xi has also tellingly not met Mr Kim yet, more than four years after the latter succeeded his father as the country's supreme leader.

Following last week's test, China openly displayed its unhappiness, Dr Graham pointed out.

"Beijing appears more willing for Pyongyang to take the blame in isolation, rather than calling on 'all parties' to compromise, as it has in the past," he said.

Experts expect China to agree to the tougher sanctions that a new United Nations Security Council resolution against North Korea is likely to adopt in the coming days.

But they say Beijing is unlikely to be able to push Pyongyang as far as other countries want it to, given its own strategic interests and constraints.

The two capitals are only 800km apart and the collapse of the Kim regime could see millions of refugees spill over the 1,400km border the two countries share.

Furthermore, the economy of China's north-eastern provinces is intertwined with North Korea's.

"China won't harm its own economy for the sake of sanctions," said Dr Pardo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'N. Korea's N-test may work in China's favour'. Print Edition | Subscribe