China's Triple Game?
Image Credit: Karl Baron

China's Triple Game?


Writing for us earlier this week, Joel Wuthnow, a China fellow at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, noted reports that China is believed to have assisted North Korea with its missile program, in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Specifically, the Washington Times reported that China is alleged to have provided the mobile long-range missile launcher displayed in a military parade at the weekend. The Washington Post has an image of the offending 16-wheel vehicle.

And Wuthnow is by no means alone in wondering if China is playing what he describes as a “double game”. Yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested much the same thing.

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“I’m sure there’s been some help coming from China,” Panetta said during testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. “I don’t know, you know, the exact extent of that. I think we’d have to deal with it in another context in terms of the sensitivity of that information. But clearly there’s been assistance along those lines.”

Panetta’s claims come despite China joining the U.N. Security Council in condemning North Korea’s missile launch last week. A Security Council presidential statement warned: “The Security Council deplores that such a launch has caused grave security concerns in the region.” It added that the Council also demanded North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program, adding that it must “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

It’s hard to see how China might imagine that it could provide North Korea with things such as missile launchers (or at least assistance in their development) and not think that it might perhaps want to use them. But a report from South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo suggests the potential for perhaps something more than a double game – how about a triple one?

According to the paper, the Chinese government has “halted the repatriation of North Korean defectors, apparently in response to South Korean requests and because it is angry that the North went ahead with its rocket launch.” If true, this would be a slap in the face for North Korea, and would certainly indicate Beijing’s displeasure that North Korea had decided to proceed with the launch.

The only problem is that the Chosun Ilbo report is based on a source who spoke with Japan’s The Yomiuri Shimbun. The Japanese media is notoriously vague about its sources (readers of Japanese papers must surely be thankful for the ubiquitous fly on the wall that provides allegedly direct quotes from private meetings only attended by the two people being quoted), so it’s unclear whether this report can be relied upon.

If it does turn out to be true, then China’s disapproval suggests either conflicting goals within policy making circles in Beijing, or extreme naiveté about what happens when you provide a country with missile technology. Naiveté, a double or a triple game – none are particularly encouraging.

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