Whenever there is an international security issue that merits the attention of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China’s intentions are often questioned. Is China willing to work and solve crises within the international order or is it intent on replacing current systems?
Looking at China’s interactions with international security concerns — particularly with regard to “rogue” states — can give us some answers. In any society, members are socialized to rules and they either adapt or get shunned. Likewise, states must observe key norms and values or be characterized as an outcast.
While there is no exact definition of a rogue state, it usually refers to a nation that is or has been a cause of regional/international instability, a target of UNSC action, a member of the developing world with an authoritarian ruler/group of rulers that has experience internal disorder, and/or a state sponsor of terror. With these actors, numerous norms are at play. China’s interpretation of its role in international institutions, conceptualization of non-intervention/sovereignty, and non-proliferation play a major part in its interactions with rogue states. Sudan, Iran, and North Korea are perfect examples to illustrate China’s various responses. Each is a textbook rogue state, but for different reasons.
China’s relationship with North Korea is complicated. While China is perceived to have significant influence over the nation, the reality is more complex. China maintains relations with Pyongyang to somewhat preserve stability. During the first nuclear crisis, China left the United States to deal with the Koreas. Washington had wanted China’s help, but North Korea did not want them involved.
China’s more active role began after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, starting the second crisis. Even then, China predominantly limited itself to mediation or facilitation. North Korea’s nuclear test — and its abrupt notification to China — drastically changed the situation. China issued a harsh condemnation and allowed sanctions. Each subsequent test resulted in harsher sanctions and calls for talks. For Xi Jinping, China’s president, relations with North Korea started off on the wrong foot. In the short time between Xi becoming general secretary and president, North Korea conducted a satellite launch and its third nuclear test, clearly a provocation. As a result, China supported further sanctions.
North Korea has continually ignored China’s calls for restraint. North Korea’s two nuclear tests last year further strained relations. In response to those tests, the United States and China worked together to strengthen UNSC sanctions. China even worked with the U.S. to maximize the impact of these new sanctions, having either vetoed or watered down the previous ones. As North Korea continues to be an issue, China will further enforce sanctions and call for restraint.
Dealing with Iran shows a gradual but noticeable change in China’s approach. Iran’s quest to build a nuclear weapon, combined with its connections to terrorist groups, defines its status as a rogue. In the 1980s-1990s, much of the China-Iran relationship revolved around the sale of weapons and weapons technology. However, prioritizing relations with the United States, China canceled weapons sales and nuclear assistance. This underscored that China’s relationship with Iran was purely business.
Continuing into the 2000s, China viewed a nuclear Iran as a bilateral problem between the United States and Iran. China delayed referrals to the IAEA and the UNSC — giving Iran a chance to prove its peaceful intentions. When that failed, China pushed for presidential statements, then lighter resolutions, until Iran’s non-compliance could no longer be ignored. China continually called for mediation and publicly called for cooperation.
As Iran repeatedly failed to comply with international requests, sanctions grew harsher. China remained active in Iran, but allowed for sanctions. UNSCR 1929 in 2010 paved the way for unilateral sanctions, and while China did not publicly agree, they privately instructed some companies to observe them. This helped bring Iran back to the table for the negotiations that would become the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Here, China was viewed as a key mediator. China was said to have persuaded Iranian leadership of the benefits of the deal and became more actively involved.
Sudan shows a clear evolution of China’s adaptation to unexpected circumstances. Initially, Sudan earned its rogue moniker through its 1990s connections with al-Qaeda and the crisis in Darfur. China’s relationship with Sudan was initially based out of mutual necessity — Sudan needed trading partners and China needed oil. China continued this “business is business” approach up until the peak of the Darfur crisis. International attention focused on the conflict and pulled China — and the 2008 Olympics — into the discussion. As China wanted to look like a responsible power, they had little choice but to act.
While dragging their feet in the UNSC, China appointed a diplomat to specifically deal with the crisis and sent high-level officials to Khartoum to obtain Omar al-Bashir’s compliance. These efforts broke past precedent and clearly indicated a shift in how China interpreted non-intervention/sovereignty. The referendum for South Sudanese independence continued this trend — from China’s non-involvement in the peace agreement to active acceptance and support of UN efforts to ensure a fair vote. Shortly after independence, South Sudan fell into civil war, further intensifying China’s role. China acted as a mediator, but after initial failed attempts, finally sent their first ever battalion of UN military peacekeepers. This emphasized how it viewed its role and further muddied China’s definition of non-interference.
Each example shows that, while imperfect in implementation, China understands the role it should take in international affairs and increasingly acts in such a way. China’s early inaction was a result of not viewing issues as their concern. However, as their interests and roles within the international community grew, China became more involved in searching for solutions. This role has intensified with a willingness to address issues in their own way. China began addressing these cases through mediation, and while this is still a preference, its toolbox has expanded to include influence, peacekeeping, and even sanctions.
China’s role has moved beyond a strict definition of non-interference and sovereignty to a more “constructive engagement” that understands the values of upholding international norms. Their actions now more accurately reflect its presence in international affairs and are conducted in the interest of maintaining stability and ensuring peaceful resolution. This clearly shows that China’s membership in the international system has resulted in an internalization of values and norms as China has chosen to stay within the international community rather than go outside it.
Daniel Johanson is a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London focusing on Chinese foreign policy towards North Korea, Iran and Sudan. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.