North Korean nuclear crisis casts a shadow over China’s BRICS summit

Hosts want to ensure the issue does not derail its agenda during meeting of the emerging economies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 11:18pm

The North Korean crisis will inevitably pop up when leaders from the five emerging economies meet in Xiamen, even though they will still focus on boosting growth for developing nations, observers said.

The BRICS summit involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will kick off on Sunday in the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen, six days after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan, rattling the whole region.

Both China and Russia are key trade partners for North Korea, and will be the most affected by the latest United Nations sanctions on the regime, especially China which accounts for about 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade.

Shi Yinhong, a prominent Chinese international relations expert from Renmin University in Beijing said: “The most possible discussion on North Korea will appear in bilateral talks between China and Russia”.

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While other members like India and South Africa – and some of the guest nations such as Mexico – may not be as interested inthe issue as China and Russia, their views about the North Korean nuclear crisis may well be included in the final declaration, Shi said.

Despite being economically isolated, North Korea exports about US$3 billion worth of products and maintains trade relations chiefly with China, India, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Russia, Thailand and the Philippines, according to Observatory of Economic Complexity.

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China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for upwards of 90 per cent of North Korea’s total trade volume, according to a report by Council on Foreign Relations in July, a US think tank.

Bilateral trade between Russia and North Korea has been decreasing for the last four years, from US$112.7 million in 2013 to US$76.9 million in 2016, but it more than doubled to US$31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017 in year on year terms, according to Russian Federal Customs Service statistics.

Zhang Liangui, an international relations professor at the Central Party School, said both China and Russia do not want the North Korea crisis to intensify.

“Russia has said no more new sanctions when other countries wanted to impose new ones after Pyongyang’s latest missile launch,” Zhang said, adding Beijing has also opposed to unilateral sanctions and hit back at claims that China should do more to rein in Pyongyang.

Brazil and South Africa were less-vibrant destinations for North Korean exports, which were valued at US $15.6 million and US $0.65 million respectively in 2015, according to UN trade data.

India was North Korea’s third largest trading partners in 2015-16, but both New Delhi and Beijing have changed their relationship with the increasingly bellicose nation since Kim Jong-un’s regime insisted on developing its nuclear programme against the wishes of the international community.

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China, North Korea’s major lifeline, has suspended all imports of coal, iron ore and seafood two weeks ago, following the UN’s decision to back new sanctions.

Beijing had already announced a suspension of coal imports in February.

In April, India banned all trade with North Korea – with the exception of shipments of food and medicine – in line with UN resolutions.

But analysts said China would not let the issue hijack the theme of the meeting, which it wants to strengthen the platform for economic cooperation of emerging economies.

“On the whole, the BRICS summit has its own agenda to follow, and the North Korean problem is unlikely to be treated as a major issue,” Shi added.

Luiz Pinto, a joint fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and Qatar University, said the issue would not be highlighted by China and Russia.

“The last round of sanctions was approved in the Security Council of the UN, meaning that one way or another it was supported by China and Russia.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng