China-North Korea fuel trade falls ahead of Trump visit
US president expected to pressure Beijing to exert greater influence on Pyongyang – but observers say it has exhausted most of its options, barring an ‘unfeasible’ oil embargo
China’s fuel imports and exports to North Korea dropped significantly in September from a year earlier, the latest data shows.
Figures from Chinese customs show China imported 511,619 tonnes of coal from North Korea during the month, down 71.6 per cent from the year before. Meanwhile, it exported 90 tonnes of petrol to the country, down 99.6 per cent, and 16 tonnes of diesel, a drop of 91.8 per cent.
The release of the figures on Tuesday comes at a sensitive time in Sino-US relations, with US President Donald Trump expected to visit China next month.
US officials said Trump would use the trip to pressure Beijing to exert greater influence on North Korea, however, any such efforts could backfire. Some observers said Beijing would resist pressure and respond by telling Trump to stop threatening Pyongyang with military force.
Oil supplies to North Korea could be cut as China’s frustration with ally’s failure to communicate grows
The United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea last month, banning Pyongyang from selling coal, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood abroad, and restricting North Korea’s energy supply.
Trump has vowed to take tough action against Pyongyang following its repeated nuclear and missile tests.
Trump will visit China from November 8 to 10, the third stop on his longest foreign trip to date.
A senior White House official who briefed reporters ahead of Trump’s trip said China needed to do more to comply with two UN Security Council resolutions that were approved unanimously, including with China’s support.
“We would like to see China follow through on those commitments. We would like to see China do things bilaterally as well that might even go beyond things that are mandated by those UN Security Council resolutions,” the official said.
But Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at the Renmin University in Beijing, said China had almost exhausted what it could do regarding sanctions on North Korea and had limited choices if Trump were still unsatisfied.
“Compared to the past, China now cannot recede a lot regarding the North Korea issue. Beijing might [move a bit on trade] to please Washington, aiming to ease China-US frictions,” Shi said.
Sun Xingjie, a North Korean affairs expert from Jilin University, said Beijing had no other options to sanction North Korea, barring a full oil embargo – a move that would risk angering the regime of Kim Jong-un and might even bring the whole region to war.
“Beijing and Washington have completely different solutions to the North Korea issue, but what Washington has called for might not be suitable for Beijing, especially the military options,” Sun said.
“Beijing has almost run out of economic sanction tactics and the only option left – the oil embargo – is not a feasible choice, at least for now.”
Shi said Beijing was expected to ask Trump to tone down the military threats.
“Cooperation on the North Korea issue might not be the central theme during the talks, rather, it’s the differences that will be heatedly discussed. Beijing will ask Trump not to threaten the Kim regime with military options and try to persuade Trump back to the negotiating table,” Shi said.
Trump will visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines on his trip, which lasts from November 3 to 14.
Trump would also be tough on trade during talks with Xi as he wanted to reduce the US trade deficit with China, the White House official said.
While China has shown signs of tightening its enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, it has stopped short of agreeing to US demands for a fuel embargo and has urged the United States to negotiate with Pyongyang.
Additional reporting by Reuters