BEIJING: China’s snap decision to halt North Korean coal imports – a key economic lifeline for Pyongyang – has a broader motive aimed at shaping Donald Trump’s as yet undefined policy towards the North’s rogue nuclear arms programme, experts say.
North Korea defied the world a week ago with a missile test and is suspected of orchestrating the stunning assassination a day later of supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in Malaysia, provocative acts that followed a nuclear test in September.
China is often the target of US criticism for not doing enough to rein in its irascible neighbour.
But analysts said China’s ban on North Korean coal imports for the rest of this year could be an attempt by Beijing to defuse such criticisms while nudging North Korea and the United States toward negotiations.
“If China is squeezing North Korea, it is for one purpose and one purpose only: to offer a cooperative gesture to the incoming Trump administration in return for an initiative on negotiations,” Stephan Haggard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote in a blog post.
Under the Obama administration, Washington pursued a policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea in hopes that sanctions would bring Pyongyang to heel and force it to abandon its nukes.
The incoming Trump administration has stepped up the rhetoric, with the US leader saying after the February 12 missile launch that Pyongyang was a “big, big problem” and would be dealt with “very strongly.”
Onus on Trump
China shares US concerns about Pyongyang obtaining a nuclear weapon, but prefers negotiations to sanctions, which it fears could destabilize North Korea and send a flood of refugees across their shared border.
“China’s main goal in making this move is to put the onus back on Washington, fair and square to solve this problem,” said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute.
“In effect they are saying to the US: OK, we did what you wanted, we lit a fire under their feet. What are you going to do to solve the DPRK problem now?” he added, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
The United Nations Security Council has imposed six sets of sanctions since Pyongyang first tested an atomic device in 2006.
But North Korea has continued to thumb its nose at the world with a series of missile launches over the years and two nuclear tests in 2016 alone.
Beijing traditionally ensures that UN sanctions against Pyongyang include humanitarian exemptions, and had continued to purchase huge amounts of North Korean coal – over $168 million worth in December alone.
It has long resisted calls by Washington to use its economic leverage to punish North Korea for its nuclear program, arguing it has much less influence on its unpredictable neighbour than the US thinks.
“Very few Chinese think that pain is the way to influence North Korea,” said John Delury, an expert on Sino-North Korean relations at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
From Beijing’s perspective, solving the problem will require Washington to negotiate with North Korea, whether directly or as part of a larger group.
That was a tough sell for the Obama administration, which insisted that a defiant Pyongyang take significant steps toward denuclearization before it would consider talks.
While Trump has criticised Beijing for not doing enough to curb the North’s behaviour, the coal decision suggests China “must have a sense that negotiation is under real consideration,” Delury said.
China may have pressed the case for talks when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met his American counterpart Rex Tillerson on Friday – just a day before the coal ban was announced – and discussed North Korea.
China may be banking on the iconoclastic Trump’s ability to shake up US policy toward the reclusive North.
Trump “wants to change his predecessor’s policy … and has the will to solve the problem, rather than simply ignore North Korea’s desire” for talks, Lu Chao, a research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences told Chinese newspaper the Global Times.
But if Trump hopes to act on the opening China has given him, he “can’t dally,” Delury said.
He “has to figure out a way to move forward proactively with North Korea,” he said. “You can’t just sit and wait. The situation will get worse.”
Waiting for the sanctions to bite, he said, “would be a big mistake. Because the North Koreans will just push right through it.”