Features | Security | East Asia

Is China Playing a Double Game?

Reports that a missile launcher originating from China may have been spotted in North Korea could have worrying implications for Beijing’s foreign policy.

By Joel Wuthnow for

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.

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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.   

The second explanation is that China is playing a “double game” on North Korea, taking a public stand against proliferation and providing illicit assistance to North Korea at the same time. The more subversive part of this game would serve two purposes: strategic and political. Strategically, it’s in China’s interests to solidify ties with a neighbor at a time when the United States is enhancing its own partnerships and alliances in the region, under what the Obama administration has referred to as a “pivot to Asia.” China may be pushing back against what it perceives as a U.S. strategy of encirclement.

In terms of domestic politics, leaning towards North Korea offsets criticism that the government has gone too far to accommodate U.S. interests and goals, most recently by agreeing to NATO intervention on Libya. It also signals a responsiveness to those who believe the U.S. has already interfered too much in the affairs of what was, historically, one of China’s tributary states. As one expert put it, North Korea “may be a son of a bitch, but it’s our son of a bitch.”

Whatever the reasons, the charges point to a worrisome deterioration of the role and influence of moderate foreign policy voices within China. This is true of scholars, who are under pressure to scale back signs of sympathy for the U.S., and of entire bureaucracies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which some nationalists have labeled the “Ministry of Treason,” for promoting U.S. interests over those of China.    

A waning of the moderates, and a corresponding rise of the hawks, in China has a negative implication for international cooperation. This is apparent on the North Korean nuclear issue.  Since the mid-2000s, the U.S. has treated it as a “neighborhood problem” that requires the active participation of each of the regional powers, and especially China. This led to the creation of the Six Party Talks, which have been championed by administrations of both parties. If Beijing is, in fact, playing a double game on North Korea, it damages not only the Six Party Talks, but also the long-term prospects for multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia.

The silver lining, however, is that a tightening of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang provides the U.S. with a convincing repudiation of China’s assertion that it lacks the influence to make a difference on North Korea. Washington should seize the opportunity to sell to as many states as possible – including emerging powers, such as Brazil, Turkey and India – the message that China can and should do more to pressure North Korea to comply with international nonproliferation norms, and that a failure to do so will be met with profound opposition. 

Joel Wuthnow is a fellow at the China and the World Program at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is completing a book manuscript on China's diplomacy in the U.N. Security Council.