North Korea

‘Strong man’ Xi may get tougher on North Korea but China ‘won’t cut oil link’

China and US agree to better coordination on Pyongyang but Beijing unlikely to cut off its neighbour’s fuel lifeline, analyst says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 11:32pm

China might agree to further reductions in oil exports to North Korea but would stop short of cutting Pyongyang’s lifeline completely, a Chinese diplomatic observer said.

The assessment came after the leaders of China and the United States vowed to improve coordination over the reclusive state, with US President Donald Trump calling on Beijing to work hard to stop Pyongyang from realising its nuclear ambitions.

In top-level talks in the Chinese capital on Thursday, Trump demanded China sever all financial links with North Korea, and said Chinese President Xi Jinping could come up with a solution as a “strong man”.

But Xi said only that dialogue was crucial to resolve the problem.

After the talks, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump told Xi: “You’re a strong man, I’m sure you can solve this for me.”

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Tillerson said Xi also discussed specific action that China was taking to enforce sanctions against North Korea, such as restrictions on bank accounts.

In an address to a business forum after the talks, Trump said the US was committed to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, but China had to work harder on the issue.

“If you work on it hard, it [the denuclearisation] will happen. There is no doubt about it,” he said. “Time is quickly running out, we must act fast, and hopefully China will act faster.”

In a statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said China and the US had a “common goal” for the Korean peninsula, and the two nations would step up communication about it.

Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, said China might have signalled that Beijing could take tougher measures against Pyongyang, including cuts to oil supplies.

But it was unlikely that Beijing, Pyongyang’s sole economic and security guarantor, would agree to a complete halt to the essential fuel.

Despite the lack of progress on North Korea, China’s lavish “gift pack” of trade deals should be enough to satisfy the deal-making Trump, Wu said.

“The giant gift pack of US$250 billion in trade deals is already something Trump can take home and claim as a success of the visit,” he said.

North Korea has become a contentious issue between China and the United States, with Washington insisting that military action is an option.

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The US also maintains that China should put more pressure on North Korea, especially with Xi cementing his political status at the Communist Party’s national congress last month.

Justin Hastings, a China-North Korea trade analyst at the University of Sydney, said the two countries might have discussed an approach towards North Korea, but the outcome would not be disclosed.

Lu Chao, an specialist on China-North Korea relations at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said it was possible China had secured a promise from Trump to play down the military option.

“Trump has shown that the US is willing to consider China’s position that there should be no war on the Korean peninsula,” he said.

Lu said there were concerns that North Korea would conduct another nuclear or missile test during the summit but the pressure from China and the US might have paid off.

“North Korea has shown restraint and seems to want to leave its options open instead of further escalation which would lead to a dead end,” Lu said.

Timothy Heath, senior international defence research analyst at US think tank Rand, said he was sceptical that China would squeeze North Korea further.

“China is unlikely to risk adding too much pressure to North Korea, due to a fear that the regime could collapse and thereby cause a serious catastrophe on the peninsula,” Heath said.