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Every man and his dog are discussing the agreement coming out of the Six-Party Talks. It is great that we’ve come so far, but I think there is one actor who is being short-changed here: China. Sure, news reports are giving them a cursory mention, but to me, China is the most important of the five in getting an agreement from the North Koreans. Is this a sign of a diplomatically more mature China? I will investigate this idea through the course of this post.

Firstly I will suggest to you that China’s role in the Six-Party Talks is of prime importance to the agreement. The current phase of the Talks is taking place in Beijing, and the Chinese had laid the groundwork for progress prior to their commencement on the 8th February. Christopher Hill, the top US negotiator at the Talks, commended China for its part in forging the agreement.

One of the key moves to improve the momentum of the Talks was the creation of the simultaneous working groups. One of these working groups gave Japan a forum to discuss the abduction issue in a bilateral framework towards normalising relations without impeding the main talks, although North Korea protested that the issue was resolved. I cannot stress how important this release is for the Talks. The Japanese pursuit of the abduction issue in the main talks was always in danger of derailing the process.

Before I continue, I just want to add some more words about Japan (for a start, it is ground I am far more familiar with). The Japanese still want to resolve the abduction issue, Shinzo Abe and his cabinet are still pushing this issue. However, on the ground there is undoubtedly some change. Despite Japan’s warning that it will not give aid to North Korea until there is some progress on the issue (which indeed is a toning down from ‘resolution’), Japan is still getting involved in the action. At the moment it is likely to assess North Korea’s energy needs, even if it doesn’t help meet them. This is important as Japan MUST stay involved in the process, this is key to Japanese and US interests.

Japan cannot afford to let North Korea’s denuclearisation take place without its input. As a regional power, and the future of that power, it must be able to project its perspective into the Talks. To this end, all six parties should attempt to ensure that the Japan-DPRK working group does not fall through. Progress on the abduction issue is important, but between North Korea’s stance on its resolution and Japan’s hard-line, there is a lot of friction to deal with.

I posited at the start that China’s role in the Six-Party Talks might be evidence of a mature foreign policy. However, there are other issues I have to address first. I will begin with last month’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test, before discussing the alternative reason for China’s interest in the Six-Party Talks.

The ASAT test was conducted on 11th January. China launched a rocket missile that made contact with one of its own satellites and successfully destroyed it. This was a worrying development to many and there are a number of reasons which I will address below, before I close the issue with a suggestion that this was not in the realm of foreign policy.

We all use satellites, I know for sure that I need them for the hundreds of channels of rubbish that comes into my TV. In most cases however, they are an invisible presence. If anything, weather forecasting would be even worse without them! However, one particular group of society is deeply reliant on them: the military (or more precisely, the US military). The US military uses satellites in much of its day-to-day operations. They are key to maintaining communication between its globally deployed forces, and much intelligence is derived from them (from the communications intelligence (COMINT) satellites that hoover up signals, to the imagery intelligence (IMINT) satellites that collect photographic data).

One primary use of satellites by the US military (and a great deal of other forces) is the Global Positioning System (GPS). China’s ASAT test might be seen as a direct threat to this system. To make matters worse, China has decoupled itself from the US-controlled GPS and joined the European Union’s Galileo programme that seeks to create a rival network. Indeed, China was the first non-EU state to sign up. So some fear that China’s test means that it could paralyse US systems in the event of conflict.

We should not forget the context of these fears: rising China. This is a direct threat to US hegemony, so the thinking goes. I would wager that a significant number see a second Cold War (and I don’t mean post-detente) or even an all-out conflict between the ascending China and US superpower. I don’t know if you buy into that though, I simply hope that we are beyond the Cold War paradigm and that the US can accommodate the creeping power of China peacefully… assuming China’s power ever reaches that magnitude.

Speaking of the Cold War paradigm, another system threatened by the ASAT test is the ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. This is the spiritual successor to the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, better known as Star Wars). This is system aims to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. It is heavily reliant on satellites which provide early-warning, tracking and (possibly) kill functions. This is an issue for Japan whose involvement with BMD is for a locally-oriented theatre missile defence (TMD) system. Put simply, the US is attempting to undermine mutually assured destruction (MAD), yet the Chinese have countered these moves with the ASAT test.

This test, despite China’s insistence that it was a weaponisation/militarisation of space, is likely to see the US reconsidering its lack of ASAT capabilities. We could see an ASAT arms race in near future. The norms surrounding the weaponisation of space are enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (of which China is a signatory since 1989). However, the Outer Space Treaty has not killed all space-based weapons projects, one can see that with SDI in the 1980s. Furthermore, ASAT tests are not covered by the treaty, and the US conducted a test as recently as 1985. China did not vitiate the treaty, it simply has never been relevant.

The ASAT test was not an issue of foreign affairs for China. The test was conducted by the People’s Liberation Army, which has a large amount of independence from yet ties to China’s political institutions. For China, it was a defence or security concern, and that’s how they wished to play it. They attacked their own satellite (a task made easier because of the amount of tracking data one has their own satellites) and thus it was an internal matter… even if it created more debris in the planet’s near-space. The test comes from a different policy-making body than China’s foreign affairs, thus you might (as I am trying to do) argue that this transgression is not evidence of an ‘immature’ foreign policy.

So, back to North Korea. I’m sure you all remember that small incident this summer, oh and the incident a few months later… that’s right, the testing of the Taepodong II missiles and of a nuclear device. Well, it is most plausible that China was deeply embarrassed by the actions of its client state. China secures North Korea’s existence. It has provided aid, arms and political support, stemming from the original support it gave to Kim Il-Sung’s fight for a socialist state. In return, China could keep that particular terrier reined-in; barking, but too restrained to nip your ankles. With the 5th Round (the current one) of the Six-Party Talks underway at that time, North Korea threw away all of China’s goodwill by acting irresponsibly.

China was chastised for North Korea’s actions and it lost face in the Talks. Indeed, it has long been said that until China put pressure on Kim Jong-Il’s regime, there could never be any progress. So perhaps China sought to exercise its control over North Korea by pressing it into the current phase of the Six-Party Talks and securing an agreement so that it could also regain some political capital.

I see no reason why the paternal handling of North Korea and a maturing foreign policy need be mutually exclusive. In order to show the degree of maturity, I have to give further evidence. China is a global actor. It is pursuing a comprehensive development plan that sees it giving money to projects all over the world, particularly in Africa (creating a sphere of influence). It is filling the gaps of the unipolar world in a way that suggests it is ascendant. In its own region, namely Northeast Asia, it is mending bridges with Japan. How long this lasts is another matter… and therein lies the problem.

Deep down, I hope that we are seeing a more responsible China: a China that gets involved in climate change initiatives, peacekeeping, and human rights, but it can only go so far. China may be liberalising, but it is still a socialist state in terms of government. It is still a violator of human rights. China’s regional policy might be maturing, but perhaps it is simply a means of garnering goodwill before next year’s Olympic Games? If it gets the results, does it matter? Who knows… I certainly don’t.



  1. One primary use of satellites by the US military (and a great deal of other forces) is the Global Positioning System (GPS). China’s ASAT test might be seen as a direct threat to this system.

    It is absolutely not a direct threat, and here’s why:

    China shot down one of its low-orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile. As you point out, they knew the trajectory well. This satellite was orbiting the earth at an altitude 865 kilometers, well within the range of China’s ballistic missiles.

    The US Air Force managed Navstar GPS satellite constellation? There are 29 of them up there, with 24 needed for full operational capability. They orbit the earth at 20,200 kilometers. The system could be run, though be patchy, with as few as 12 satellites in orbit.

    First, there’s no ballistic missile in Chinese possession that will travel 20,200 kilometers – and if there was, nothing would be accurate at that range on a trajectory they do not fully know (even if they did, coming within a kilometer of target would be a hell of shot).

    Then, they need to knock five of those out of the sky just to reduce an already redundant system to full capability. Could that happen before retaliatory strikes hit? Not likely. Again, they don’t have ballistics to deliver the payload to begin with, so knocking five of those out of the skies just isn’t going to happen.

    What of other US Defense satellites, such as COMINT used DSCS constellations? They sit 32,000-35,000 kilometers above the earth in orbit – they’re pretty safe.

    So some fear that China’s test means that it could paralyse US systems in the event of conflict.

    Not really, at least not anyone in the military. Some of the imaging satellites are quite low, but so what? How many would China realistically be able to take out before it even makes a dent in capability?

  2. Oh I agree, it is not a direct threat nor should it be construed as one, but the level of analysis given to the test was appalling in my opinion and all kinds of claims (like that one I made) were tossed around.

    Same with BMD… I assume the constellation will be in a lower orbit than GPS, but still the threat is pretty minimal. I assume in both cases they are talking about threats in terms of a system developed from this test.

    The whole thing has been blown out of proportion, I just felt I should throw it in before someone brought it up in comments.

  3. Excellent post!

    China was indeed a key player in those talks, and their role in the region (and world) will continue grow in importance.

    However, in regards to North Korea’s “denuclearisation” (from the military point-of-view not energy needs) I personally tend to believe the whole exercise is but a charade. Not many countries able to manufacture these weapons choose not to have them. Japan is one of those few countries (at least for the moment), but I seriously doubt we can say the same about North Korea.

    The DPRK has worked long and hard toward acquiring the means to build and stockpile their own nuclear weapons. Why would they simply abandon their goal when they have either managed to achieve it, or are so very close to succeeding?

    Well, I could be wrong, but either way Japan cannot afford to not be involved.

    Out of curiosity, what type of pressure do you think China applied to North Korea in order for the hermit state to “play nice” and agree to a deal?

    By the way, your final paragraph expressed exactly what has been on my mind (concerning China) these last few weeks.


  4. The DPRK has worked hard to build nuclear weapons, but then so did South Africa a few decades ago. South Africa gave up its weapons, and it is not inconceivable that North Korea would do the same. The weapons are a bargaining chip, or are least that is one possibility. The question is what is their real goal? Is it to try and secure parity with the US? A pretty unlikely possibility given their limited resources. Could they not be trying to get out of their pathetic situation without suffering regime change by having the greatest status symbol and the one thing everyone will do anything to stop?

    As for the pressure… China has a whole range of methods it could have used. Not sticking up for the North Koreans is one, the diplomatic pressure could have been considerable, but hardly likely to affect a change in the North Korean’s position. After the nuclear test, China really ramped up the pressure on North Korea. It stepped up security on the border, tightened the cash flow, and threatened to stop the oil that provides for 80% of North Korean needs.

    If you anger the only state who supports your existence, you can guarantee that they will have ways to shut you down. At the same time, perhaps that they were willing to do that to China is indicative of how important a nuclear weapon was to their aims…

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