After North Korea conducted its sixth underground nuclear test, which was 10 times stronger than its last one, the US responded by warning Pyongyang that any threat to the US or its allies would be met with a “massive military response”. Donald Trump tweeted that he is considering ceasing trade with any country that does business with the north – and of course, it’s clear which countries he meant.
China is the top destination for North Korean goods, with exports worth US$2.83 billion, dwarfing the US$97.8m that northern products fetch from second-placed India. That leaves China exposed to the US’s unpredictable ire.
Prior to the nuclear test, South Korea had already sought a review of a cap on ballistic missile numbers; Trump approved it, meaning Seoul can now increase the distance and the force of its missiles, an outcome sure to discomfort Beijing. Shortly after the test, South Korea’s defence ministry said that it will deploy four more Terminal High Altitude Defence (THAAD) missile systems. This is bound to further frustrate Beijing, which is still fuming about the systems deployed already.
More worryingly for China, Japan has also taken steps to boost its defence mechanisms, ostensibly to counter the North Korean missile threat but conveniently dovetailing with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s campaign for a normalised and robust military. Abe has proposed a 2.5% increase in Japan’s defence budget, including research into hypersonic missiles and the extension of the range of its missiles.
With China increasingly viewing the South Korean and Japanese moves as hostile, it seems like East Asia’s strategic calculus could be changing. And while China has shown a remarkable amount of patience for North Korea’s military advances, Kim’s apparent disrespect for its president, Xi Jinping, might just tip the scales.
The latest nuclear test was conducted just as Xi was busy hosting a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations conference in Xiamen. This was supposed to be the latest feather in Xi’s cap, a chance to show off his diplomatic finesse after resolving the Doklam border dispute with India just before the summit. But then came the nuclear test, and the attention Xi dearly wanted immediately evaporated.
This act of upstaging is a serious matter. The importance of the BRICS summit should not be understated; this was the last major international event for Xi before the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s most important domestic political event, which kicks off on October 18.
Unlike the standard agenda of previous meetings, this year’s national congress is immensely personally important to Xi. He is trying to install allies in the Politburo Standing Committee, to push through wide-ranging social, economic and military reforms, and possibly aiming to stay on in some capacity beyond the normal 10-year term.
Strange that it’s not domestic rivals but Kim Jong-un (mocked by some Chinese as “Kim fatty the third”) that poses the biggest headache for Xi. Still, the latest indications point towards yet another missile test. Xi will certainly not appreciate Pyongyang overshadowing the build-up to the 19th Congress, or worse still, staging a test of some sort when it’s underway next month.
So what options does the Chinese leadership have? Very few, and none of them very good.
After the September 3 test, the nationalist Chinese paper Global Times said that China is not prepared to put an oil embargo on North Korea. Some voices are even arguing that it may be better to simply accept the reality that North Korea will soon be fully nuclear-armed, but that would be a huge risk. Trump has stated repeatedly that the US will not accept a nuclear North Korea, and his unpredictability has to be taken into account when gaming out his administration’s possible response.
Alternatively, China could fully abandon North Korea to deal Kim a real blow. But again, this does not seem attractive. If the North Korean regime were really threatened with war or collapse, Kim could turn his weaponry and army towards China with the full rage of the scorned. All things considered, China will most likely stick to the script: asking for all parties to cease provocation.
Ultimately, Xi is not prepared to risk worsening the situation in the run up to the 19th Congress. What would be interesting to watch is what China does after the 19th Congress is concluded. If Xi comes out of it with more authority and political capital to spend domestically and abroad, perhaps he will start to take more decisive measures against his troublesome neighbour.