When North Korea tested a new tactical guided weapon last week under the supervision of Kim Jong Un, its closest ally, Beijing, hardly seemed to raise an eyebrow despite the high stakes.
Missile tests have taken place more frequently in North Korea in recent months, but this time it was testing a new weapons system intended to improve its nuclear capacity.
North Korean media described the weapon as one of “major importance” that would dramatically improve the “firepower of front-line long-range artillery units and improve efficiency in the operation of tactical nuclear weapons.”
The test, which coincides with the 110th anniversary of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, also followed a series of launches this year that have raised alarm bells in South Korea and Japan, as well as the United States. In March, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time in four years, breaking its self-imposed moratorium by firing its “largest nuclear-capable missile”. according to NKNews.
Satellite images have also shown renewed activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was officially closed in 2018.
After the tests, Beijing sent a special envoy to Washington this week, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, but he too has been holding back as he bides his time with the US and South Korea. .
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, points to the contrast with previous incidents in which China intervened as an intermediary between North Korea, South Korea and Seoul’s close ally, the United States.
“In the past, China constructively hosted the Six-Party Talks and was willing to join the UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But now Beijing is hardly putting pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize or return to diplomacy,” Easley said.
As two of the world’s few remaining communist countries, North Korea and China are each other’s only treaty allies, with Beijing wielding enormous influence over the deeply isolated nation. China played a critical role in helping North Korea push back US-led forces during the Korean War, and the two sides have maintained close ties ever since.
China is North Korea’s most important source of trade and economic assistance, and its importance has grown since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While new sanctions dealt a heavy blow to cross-border trade in 2018 before the pandemic, Informal trade continued as North Koreans worked in Chinese factories across the border in Dandong.
In January, cross-border trains resumed service, bringing goods north from China, likely to deal with food shortages exacerbated by Pyongyang’s decision to close its borders when COVID-19 emerged.
Yun, who is also a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, said the ongoing competition between Beijing and Washington “means that China is building up strategic influence, and its relationships with North Korea, and potential influence.” .
While always tense, relations between the US and China soured under the presidency of Donald Trump, and they have not markedly improved since President Joe Biden took office last year. Now, she tells Al Jazeera by email, Beijing has “less incentive and willingness” to act.
Isaac Stone Fish, founder and chief executive of the China-focused research firm Strategy Risks, agrees. “I think North Korea is trying to get attention for what it wants, and China would love for other countries to give it to it,” he told Al Jazeera. “It just doesn’t want to have to do it itself.”
The US imposed a new round of sanctions in early April following the ICBM tests, but Stone Fish says North Korea’s leader is hoping for financial support in exchange for halting tests.
Pyongyang has traditionally used tests to extract diplomatic and financial concessions and was often successful.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean Studies professor at Tufts University in the US, told CNBC in 2017 that Pyongyang had extracted close to $20 bn in “cash, food, fuel and medicine” from South Korea, Japan, the US and China in the previous 25 years.
A flurry of summits after North Korea’s 2017 nuclear tests finally broke down when Pyongyang demanded sanctions be lifted completely, suggesting to some experts that their motivation may have in part been financial.
China may have been wearied by some of its neighbour’s manoeuvring, and Beijing’s top leaders have their own domestic challenges, including the worst COVID-19 outbreak since the virus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. Forty-five Chinese cities, including its important economic centre of Shanghai, are under partial or full lockdown as authorities continue to pursue a policy of “Covid Zero.”
China’s leadership is also gearing up for the all-important National Party Congress in October, when major policies will be set for the next five years.
“Beijing is focusing on Covid, but also there’s a lot of political jockeying going on among elite politicians in China right now because there are a lot of very important positions up for grabs,” Stone Fish said.
Chief among them is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is poised to secure an unprecedented third term after scrapping term limits in 2018.
But analysts say that while Beijing may remain silent for now, it may be forced to act if North Korea resumes nuclear tests, which have been suspended since 2017.
More tests expected
Pyongyang often tests and displays new weapons to coincide with major national holidays, and now the focus is on April 25, when Pyongyang marks the anniversary of the Korean People’s Army.
North Korea did not hold a military parade during Kim Il Sung’s birth celebration last week as many expected, despite signs of practices taking place on the parade ground. Experts say evidence suggests the event could take place on the military anniversary.
For now, Beijing continues to walk a fine line, hoping that Washington remains distracted by North Korea and the war in Ukraine, while the situation on the Korean peninsula does not become so tense that Seoul and Tokyo feel cornered.
South Korea’s incoming President Yoon Suk-yeol is expected to take a more aggressive approach toward North Korea than current President Moon Jae-in.
It has already indicated that it wants to expand US and South Korean military exercises and also install additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile launchers on South Korean soil.
Meanwhile, Japan’s ruling party has called for the country to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product in response to changing dynamics in the Asia Pacific. Together, the two countries are home to nearly 80,000 US soldiers on military bases built at the end of World War II.
Stone Fish says such developments are potentially worrying for both China and North Korea because the US could use the opportunity provided by regional concern about the North to try to further contain Beijing’s reach.
This week, the US began a nine-day joint military exercise with South Korea, while earlier in the month, the US, Japan and South Korea held joint naval exercises.
“It is in China’s interest that the United States be distracted,” Stone Fish said. “China is not interested in having a regional military buildup in South Korea and Japan that people pretend is just about North Korea, but it’s actually also about countering and restraining China.”