Tag Archives: China

North Korea and China: A friendship in decline?

By Marian Fritz, Member of the Board

In the last few weeks, the spotlight of international debate shifted away from Syria and focused instead on the events related to North Korea. Recent developments in the region bear an enormous potential for a widespread  conflict with possible nuclear strikes. The threat of use of nuclear weaponry was believed to be a relic of the cold war era, but in recent days – according to US officials  – it has become possible to consider nuclear strikes as an option “on the table.”

The conflict exists since the creation of both North and South Korea after the Second World War, and grew into a fully fledged war between June 1950 and July 1953 between the communist North Korea and the capitalist South Korea, drawing in all of their allies including China and the USA. The conflict has never ended, with both sides agreeing upon an armistice. Tensions have always been high, however at the moment, they seem to have become higher than ever before.

The situation was delicate over the last few years with North Korea’s pursuit to develop and test nuclear weaponry, but this time the situation is different. The US has previously deployed warships into the area for drills, as well as a deterrent to protect South Korea (for example in 2016), however under the new administration, direct threats made by the US Government have increased. This verbal escalation was clear during Vice President Price‘s visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on 17th April 2017 when he threatened North Korea that the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, also known as the ‘Mother of all Bombs’) used by the US in Afghanistan could also be used against North Korea[i]. This claim prompted Russia to respond by claiming to have the “father of all bombs”.[ii]

Although the Peoples Republic of China has traditionally supported North Korea, this seems to have deteriorated. This was seen in the report by the state-owned television channel CCTV, which reported that Air China had stopped flights to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. This was later corrected by Air China announcing that only some flights were canceled due to declining demands[iii], however this effectively demonstrated a rift in the diplomatic relations between both countries.[iv] Another sign for the worsening relationship between China and North Korea was the announcement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to ban coal imports from North Korea by the end of 2017 and a report that China refused a Korean coal delivery worth $1m in February 2017.[v] Given the various sanctions currently imposed on North Korea and keeping in mind that coal trade with China has been the North Korea’s main source of income, this threat has the ability to damage the North Korea’s shrinking economy and isolate the nation even further.

This new separation can also be traced when international naval traffic is monitored. The map below shows that many vessels – including many Chinese cargo vessels – avoid North Korean waters.

NK Map

Figure 1: Maritime traffic in the region (Source: http://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/home/centerx:40.8/centery:3.4/zoom:2)

The rift between the former allies could present an opportunity to resolve the problem of North Korea’s developing nuclear programme, however it bears great risks. If China enforces the coal ban, this could lead to a total collapse of the North Korean economy and create pressure on Chairman Kim Jong Un to either stop his nuclear programme, or face his removal from power without foreign military intervention.

Although this option does avoid the use of nuclear weapons, it could lead to a civil war in North Korea if Kim Jong Un chooses to fight. This in turn could lead to the proliferation of nuclear material, which would need to be prevented by all means, otherwise international security will be at stake.

If China does not continue to increase pressure on North Korea, and all parties do decline to reduce their threats, the possibility of a nonlethal solution to the conflict is weakened. So far there is still the possibility of preventing an armed conflict, however this must be done through China rather than by addressing Kim Jong Un. Based on China’s actions of over the past few months, it would be reasonable to assume that China does not want a conflict on their border and would put diplomatic pressure on North Korea to avoid this. Nevertheless, it must be made clear to all nations concerned that in the case of a war with North Korea there would be no winner but only losers, especially if the conflict turns nuclear.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.


[i] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/16/politics/us-north-korea-dmz-vice-president-pence/

[ii] http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/20/world/russia-foab-weapon/

[iii] http://www.reuters.com/article/northkorea-china-airline-idUSL3N1HM30D

[iv] http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/25/news/air-china-north-korea-beijing-pyongyang-flights/

[v] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-39015529

Showdown or Just Hot Air? The South Chinese Sea Conflict

by Marian Fritz, Member of the MEF Board

Proclaimer: In the following essay the author assumes a multipolar world, defining superpowers by the height of their military budget (over USD 60 billion) and the number of active soldiers (over 750,000).

Since the end of the Cold War era, armed conflict between superpowers seems to be a thing of the past. This was partly caused by the struggle to maintain a bipolar world following the decline of the USSR. Although the USA and the USSR fought a number of proxy wars against each other – except for the Cuban missile crisis, the status quo was relatively stable.

Since then, the world has rapidly changed: to analyze the state of security, one must not forget the significance of the BRIC(S) states. These states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – host 42% of the worlds population and have won significant influence on the world stage, whereas many of the “old” European powers have taken more minor roles.

Whilst the South Chinese Sea conflict is not new, it has the potential to affect the whole world. Despite this conflict not being present in the media or the public does not mean that did not exist: to analyze the conflict, as well as its threat potential, the actors and the objectives need to be clarified.

marian 1

Diagram 1 – Source unknown

Other nation states involved in this conflict are Brunei, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore; more further afield Australia, Japan, Russia and the USA.

On first glance, the problem appears one of which over who will control a collection of small uninhabited islands; however on closer look, deeper and more complex objectives can be seen.

The main objectives are hegemonic concerns between China and the USA, as Beijing tries hard to break the hegemony of the US by expanding its territory to the south and intimidating its neighbors, one of which is Japan. As both Japan and China share a long history of enmity and a further territorial dispute the Senkaku Islands, it clear to see why Japan has willingly joined the dispute over the South Chinese Sea.

Another factor is that the most important Asian Sea route passes waters claimed by China by the “Nine-Dashed-Line” (see Diagram 1). This territorial claim however has not been tolerated by China´s neighbors and the USA. As China is currently operating a highly expansive foreign policy and has started developing military facilities, the regional nations are becoming increasingly nervous and want to stop this expansion.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS) is important in this context. Naval passages may not be blocked and artificial islands in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are not to be used for military purposes. As a party to UNCLOS, China claims it not only owns the islands but also the 200 miles EEZ around it – this second point is lawful for a continental shelf, however not for artificial islands.

The relatively small regional nations are looking for a strong ally to balance out the superpower China, which additionally has the same goals in order to protect them – the so-called neo-realism theory. Diagram 2 illustrates this concept in both theory and practice. Over the last few years, the USA has increased its activity in the region by conducting exercises – using naval vessels, either tests of new equipment or vessels stationed locally, or aircraft flyovers – all indented to secure and inspire confidence in its allies.

marian 2

Diagram 2 – by author

Geopolitical developments have demonstrated some interesting alliances. Old enemies such as Vietnam and the USA are joining together to limit the Chinese expansion. In turn, China has gained support from Russia.

Simply from looking at the military capabilities, in particular the relative strengths of active forces and military budgets (Diagram 3), it is clear that this conflict has enormous potential. One cannot forget that three actors – China, Russia and the USA – additionally have WMD capabilities.
marian 3

Diagram 3 – by author

In conclusion, we need to face the fact that this conflict bears enormous potential for escalation which may be triggered by various sources of provocation from all sides, such as interception of flights, blockade of sea routes, close passages to islands and diplomatic misunderstanding. Although a war would be theoretical possible, it is most unlikely to occur because a conflict of this size would serious affect the global population and economy. One significant hope remains as long as the leaders of the nations involved act in a rational manner, as the cost of war significantly exceeds any possible benefits.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.