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China's real reasons for enforcing North Korea sanctions: Trump, Party Congress

  • Beijing's enforcement of current sanctions against North Korea could just be a temporary measure
  • China is looking to improve relations with the U.S. as well as ensure stability ahead of a key meeting of Communist Party officials, experts said

Washington has praised the world's second-largest economy for making progress in enforcing sanctions imposed on North Korea. But China's current measures may just be a temporary move for its own gain.

Since Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, China has adopted the United Nations' multiple resolutions against the rogue state. Doubts about enforcement have persisted, however, amid data revealing strong Sino-North Korean economic ties.

For instance, trade between the two countries reportedly rose 10.5 percent on-year to $2.55 billion in the first half of 2017. President Xi Jinping's team attributed the increase to sectors excluded from sanctions.

An anti-U.S. rally at Kim Il Sung Square is seen in this September 23, 2017 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 24, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters
An anti-U.S. rally at Kim Il Sung Square is seen in this September 23, 2017 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 24, 2017.

But the Asian superpower's recent penalties appeared to be significant. Last month, Beijing said it would ban textile and seafood imports in addition to exports of certain petroleum products, iron ore and coal in compliance with the UN's latest resolution — moves that are increasingly weighing on the North Korean economy.

It's unclear, however, just how long Xi's government will maintain those stinging policies.

"China usually enforces sanctions only for temporary periods of time, when global attention is focused on North Korea, and reverts to normal trade with the country when tensions have blown over," Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, associate scholar at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a recent note.

The mainland essentially wants to ensure Pyongyang's survival in the long run, he added, referring to fears over a North Korean refugee crisis in the case of regime collapse. Beijing is also worried about any unification on the Korean Peninsula, which would likely result in greater U.S. influence in the region.

'Concessions for Trump'

Current penalties against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime are mostly just a show to appease President Donald Trump, said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Tokyo-based Temple University. "Xi seeks improved relations with the U.S. to such an extent that he's making a huge concession here to pave way for a successful Trump visit to Asia next month."

The White House has long criticized the mainland for failing to sufficiently coerce Pyongyang, but it's since changed its tune. After Chinese lenders were ordered to halt dealings with North Korean clients, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC the news was "a gigantic step," describing it as "very important pressure."

"I applaud China for breaking off all banking relationships with North Korea, something that people would have thought unthinkable even two months ago," Trump said last week.

Chinese banks have long been a key conduit for money flowing in and out of the pariah nation.

If current sanctions don't have any lasting impact on the ongoing U.S.-China political stalemate, Beijing could revert back to old ways, according to Kingston.

Searching for stability

The Chinese Communist Party's upcoming Congress, a major political gathering that decides future leadership, is also a factor in Beijing's sanctions compliance.

China will be looking for continued stability in its domestic and international affairs in the lead up to and after the Congress, said Chin-Hao Huang, head of studies for global affairs and assistant professor at Singapore's Yale-NUS College.

The tightening of sanctions is meant to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, he explained. "Any disruption to the Party Congress' deliberation would be an unwelcome development, including unilateral provocations by North Korea."

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