Since the UN Security Council implemented sanctions on North Korea on March 2, China has quietly complained several times. Nevertheless, the sanctions regime has held mostly intact. The U.S. has been praising China’s unusual level of cooperation, and has been patting itself on the back for a diplomatic success.
Now, however, Beijing has asked for and been granted some flexibility by the Security Council, which has agreed to make certain allowances according to Reuters:
China asked the United States on March 16 for help removing [four] ships from the U.N. blacklist, according to a diplomatic cable sent the same day from the U.S. permanent mission at the United Nations to a group of other U.S. embassies.
The cable, reviewed by Reuters, showed wrangling between top diplomats from the United States and China over the tough new North Korea sanctions, weeks after Washington had presented a united front with Beijing, Pyongyang’s main ally and trade partner.
The U.S. mission at the United Nations declined to comment on the cable or make its ambassador, Samantha Power, available for an interview about the cable. The U.S. Treasury Department, which administers U.S. economic and financial sanctions, also declined to comment.
China is caught between a rock and a hard place, with its only ally on one side and more powerful regional players on the other. Last fall, Beijing moved closer to Pyongyang after a period of chillier relations. But China also tried to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan. For a short time, the strategy seemed to be delivering results. But then North Korea conducted a series of nuclear and ballistic tests this year, driving Seoul and Tokyo away from Beijing and into Washington’s arms.
It’s clear that, after eventually agreeing to sanctions on Pyongyang, China is having second thoughts. As long as Beijing appears unwilling or unable to control North Korea, other states—particularly South Korea—won’t be willing to work much more closely with China. Right now, it looks like Beijing has gotten the worst of all worlds, and has alienated North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. This is how it always seems to go: when North Korea misbehaves, China loses.