In backing the latest US-led sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council, both China and Russia seem to have made a tenuous bet to resolve the crisis on the Asian peninsula. By deferring to Washington’s punitive sanctions, Beijing and Moscow are calculating that the US will relent on their proposals for comprehensive talks and a freeze on American military exercises with its South Korean ally.
China and Russia may regret their course of action. Since the imposition of new sanctions on North Korea last weekend, the tensions in the region have ratcheted up to alarming levels. US President Trump has even been accused of using «unhinged» language by members of Congress after he threatened to unleash «fire and fury» on North Korea «with a power the world has never seen before». Some American lawmakers were comparing Trump’s rhetoric with that of North Korea’s fiery leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korea, predictably, responded to Trump’s outburst by declaring that its leadership was considering a pre-emptive military strike on the US air base on the Pacific island of Guam.
The region is being put on a hair-trigger for war – a war that would certainly involve the use of nuclear weapons. The American side has come to the conclusion that North Korea has finally mastered the technology to fit a nuclear warhead on its already proven intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, reported the Washington Post this week. That means that if a military confrontation breaks out, the US will be tempted to use overwhelming force.
Trump’s words about deploying «power the likes of which the world has never seen before» are especially icy given the 72nd anniversary this week of the US dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
When the UN Security Council convened last weekend it passed Resolution 2371 unanimously with 15 votes to 0. It was a surprise turnaround by China and Russia. Last month, following North Korea’s ICBM test on July 4, both Beijing and Moscow rejected the US call for more sanctions on Pyongyang. They said then that sanctions policy doesn’t work and instead called for all-party dialogue to resolve the long-running Korean crisis. China and Russia also made the eminently reasonable call for the US and its South Korean ally to desist from their frequent joint war maneuvers, which the Communist North perceives as a threat of invasion.
Over the past few weeks, the US and China reportedly engaged in intense negotiations over the Korean issue. Trump accused his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping of not doing enough to rein in allied North Korea. The US also threatened to take punitive action against China over wider issues of trade and intellectual property rights. Before the weekend vote at the UNSC, Trump inexplicably cancelled a speech in which he was expected to lay out tough American actions against China over commercial disputes. That suggests some kind of bargain was done between Washington and Beijing – and that China voting for further sanctions on North Korea was part of it.
Following the unanimous vote at the UNSC, Trump and his ambassador Nikki Haley reportedly could hardly contain their glee over «the united response» against «rogue state North Korea».
What Russia gets out of it is not clear. Perhaps Russia felt that to veto the sanctions against North Korea would have incurred international wrath. But it seems curious that Moscow should go along with sanctions at the very same time that Washington is provocatively imposing similar measures against it too.
What appears to be in the calculus by China and Russia is that by giving a sop to the American desire to get tough on North Korea, they are anticipating that the US will agree to calls for multi-party talks and a freeze on military activities on the Korean Peninsula.
Both the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the UN coupled the latest resolution for sanctions against North Korea with the reboot of the six-party negotiations involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the US. Those talks were abandoned in 2009 when the US and North Korea broke off in recriminations.
Last week, before the UN vote, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a significant speech in which he said that the US was not seeking regime change in Pyongyang, nor had any intention of going to war on North Korea.
Following the UN sanctions, Tillerson sounded a conciliatory note while attending the summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Manila. The summit was also attended by Chinese and Russian counterparts Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov. Tillerson said the US was open to dialogue with North Korea if the latter stopped its missile tests. That appeared to be a significant concession from the US side towards resolving the Korean problem.
However, this is where the calculation comes unstuck. The backing of more sanctions against North Korea by China and Russia may have softened the stance of the US somewhat, but at what price?
From the North Korean side, the increased sanctions are tantamount to an act of war. The new measures are aimed at banning the country’s top export earning commodities, including coal, minerals and seafood. The new sanctions will reportedly slash North Korea’s annual export revenue by one-third, down to $2 billion a year. Not surprisingly, Pyongyang responded furiously, saying the sanctions were an attack on its sovereignty.
Given Trump’s propensity for Twitter diplomacy, the spiral of rhetoric could lead to disastrous misunderstanding, as this week is tending to show.
In retrospect, it seems astonishing that Beijing and Moscow made the bet they did over new sanctions. The damage cannot be undone. But what China and Russia must do immediately is to insist that all sides proceed to multilateral talks and the standing down of military forces. The onus is primarily on the US to stand down its military power in the region. It needs to cancel its provocative maneuvers with its ally in Seoul – due again later this month – and it needs to halt the ongoing installation of the THAAD missile system on South Korean territory.
It is misplaced for China and Russia to pander to the US over sanctions and to expect something by way of concessions in return. The arrogant Americans don’t know the meaning of concessions, they only perceive weakness and will move to capitalize on weakness.
By indulging American demands for more sanctions on North Korea, the danger comes from emboldening Washington’s hubris and its own sense of impunity. One would think that Russia, above all, should understand that dynamic given its own experience over the US confiscating diplomatic properties and slapping on ever-more sanctions.
What Moscow and Beijing should do as a matter of urgency is to never mind new sanctions on North Korea; they should demand that Washington removes its military threat against North Korea – a threat that has been looming since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Then all sides must open talks without preconditions for a comprehensive peace settlement on the peninsula.
Pandering to a bully is never a good idea.