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Why China and Russia Balk at Sanctions against North Korea and Iran, Cato Nuclear Proliferation Update

Why China and Russia Balk at Sanctions against North Korea and Iran, Cato Nuclear Proliferation Update

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Published by: Cato Institute on May 10, 2010
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March 2010
Why China and Russia Balk atSanctions against North Korea and Iran
 By Ted Galen Carpenter
.S. leaders have experienced repeated frustration intheir efforts to enlist China and Russia in the cam-paign to impose robust economic sanctions againstthe newest nuclear proliferators: North Korea and Iran. In the various rounds of multilateral sanctions that the UN Security Council has adopted, Beijing and Moscow have delayed suchmeasures and diluted their provisions.Washington’s patience at what American officials regard asobstructionism is fraying, and the starkly differing agendasthreaten to exacerbate tensions with both countries. Duringhis summit meeting in Beijing in November 2009, PresidentObama reportedly warned Chinese President Hu Jintao that if China continued to block meaningful sanctions against Iran,Israel might ignite a crisis by taking military action to damageTehran’s nuclear program. For a few weeks, the Chinese gov-ernment seemed more receptive to having the UN impose a new round of penalties—and significantly stronger penalties.But that momentary flirtation with a more hard-line policy has receded. And there is no apparent willingness at all inBeijing to consider strengthening the rather modest sanctionsin place against North Korea.The Obama administration has been only a little more suc-cessful in enlisting Moscow’s support for trying to preventNorth Korea and Iran from barging into the global nuclearweapons club. Although Washington has sought Russia’s helpon the North Korean issue, the U.S. priority has been toobtain that country’s support for pressuring Tehran. Gettingthe Kremlin on board for a stronger policy was a key motivebehind Obama’s willingness to scale back the Bush adminis-tration’s proposed missile defense system in Central Europe,which had been a major irritant to Russian leaders. And for a time, that concession appeared to achieve positive results.Moscow’s rhetoric regarding Tehran’s behavior underscored a growing impatience with the clerical regime, and there werehints of a willingness to consider much harsher sanctions. Butas in the case of China, Russia has largely drifted back towardits previous position that highly punitive sanctions are coun-terproductive, and that the United States and the rest of theinternational community should make a more serious com-mitment to diplomacy to resolve the impasse with both NorthKorea and Iran regarding the nuclear issue. Americans are increasingly irritated and perplexed at thepositions that Beijing and Moscow have embraced. Bothcountries have ample motives to prevent Iran and NorthKorea from building nuclear arsenals. Iran shares a long bor-der, and North Korea a short one, with Russia. It would seemto be in Russia’s own security interest to dissuade those coun-tries from their current paths. Likewise, China ought to worry about North Korea building an arsenal on its doorstep andperhaps triggering a nuclear-arms race in Northeast Asia. Thatis especially true, since a nuclear North Korea would create anincentive for China’s long-time rival, Japan, to build a deter-rent in response.So why have Beijing and Moscow been so reluctant to seestrong sanctions imposed on the two proliferators? The rea-sons are most apparent regarding China’s position towardNorth Korea. Although maintaining the nonnuclear statusquo on the Korean Peninsula may be a significant Chineseobjective, it is not the most important one. Beijing’s top prior-ity is to preserve the North Korean state as a buffer betweenChina and the U.S. sphere of influence in Northeast Asia. AsNorth Korea’s economy has languished in recent years, China has worried that the North Korean regime might implode,much as the East German system did in 1989. Such a develop-ment would lead to the sudden emergence on China’s borderof a unified Korea allied to the United States, probably withthe continued presence of U.S. military bases. A North Koreanimplosion would also likely create a massive flow of refugeesinto China.The overriding objective of maintaining a viable NorthKorean state places a distinct limit on the amount of pressurethat Beijing is willing to exert on Pyongyang. In theory, China 
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