Is China Playing a Double Game?
Image Credit: Gill Penney

Is China Playing a Double Game?

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The Washington Times reported this week that a ballistic missile launcher of Chinese origin was on display during a military parade in Pyongyang over the weekend. If confirmed, this would represent a daring violation of U.N. sanctions and raise serious questions about China’s credibility in regional non-proliferation efforts.  Yet it’s also a potential opportunity for the United States to repudiate Beijing’s assertions that its influence over North Korea is limited.

According to analysts, the launcher in question bears striking similarities to ones produced by the People’s Liberation Army between 2010 and 2011, and designed to carry a 6,000-kilometer range ICBM, which would be capable of reaching parts of Alaska. This suggests that the launcher was either manufactured in China or based on blueprints supplied by China. Though valid questions remain, one South Korean official has been quoted as saying that, “all goods have been imported from China.”

If the PLA did, in one way or another, provide the system to North Korea in the past year or two, China would have violated arms embargo provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which was put in place following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, and Resolution 1874, which strengthened sanctions in the wake of the second nuclear test in 2009.

Such a violation would be virtually unprecedented. U.S. diplomats who work on sanctions enforcement have told me that, although it takes a “minimalist” approach to catching violators in its own borders, China itself hasn’t been charged with such a blatant and serious breach of U.N. measures until now. Indeed, China has strong reasons not to violate resolutions: doing so would cast great doubt over its status as a “responsible great power,” and would also undermine an institution that serves China’s basic interests in managing regional conflict and promoting stability.

How, then, can we explain the allegations? If it’s not merely a case of North Korea copying a design from publicly-available information, there are two possibilities. First is that the PLA has “gone rogue,” making key decisions without the consent of the top civilian leadership. This would appear to fit a pattern including an anti-satellite missile launch in 2007 and a stealth fighter test conducted during a visit to Beijing by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011, both of which seemed to catch China’s leaders off guard.

Indeed, the timing is curious. Just as news of the launcher surfaced, China agreed to a sternly-worded statement in the U.N. Security Council, condemning Pyongyang’s recent ballistic missile test, and warning of the possibility of additional sanctions.  

Nevertheless, the view of a PLA “gone rogue” exaggerates tensions in civil-military relations within China. As Andrew Scobell points out, there are “close, multiple and overlapping linkages between China’s military and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party).” Given the political and strategic consequences, it’s unlikely that a decision to provide ballistic missile technology to North Korea would have been made without the knowledge and consent of China’s top leaders.   

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