China announced a ban on imports of iron ore, iron, lead and coal from North Korea on Monday, cutting an important economic lifeline for the Pyongyang regime, as it moved to implement a package of sanctions put together by the United Nations Security Council.
The ban will take effect from Tuesday, the Ministry of Commerce announced.
But at the same time, Beijing warned the Trump administration not to split the international coalition over North Korea by provoking a trade war between China and the United States.
The warning comes as President Trump is expected to sign an executive memorandum Monday afternoon instructing his top trade negotiator to launch an investigation into Chinese intellectual property violations, a move that could eventually result in severe trade penalties,
In China, these proposed measures were seen as an attempt to put pressure on Beijing to act more strongly against North Korea, and at the same time an attempt to shift the blame for the world’s failure to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs onto China alone.
“It is obviously improper to use one thing as a tool to imposing pressure on another thing,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news conference Monday. “There will be no winner from a trade war, it will be lose-lose.”
In an editorial, the state-owned China Daily newspaper said Trump was asking too much of China over North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
Trump’s “transactional approach to foreign affairs” was unhelpful, it said, while “politicizing trade will only exacerbate the country’s economic woes, and poison the overall China-U.S. relationship.”
That won’t bring results when it comes to North Korea either, it argued.
“By trying to incriminate Beijing as an accomplice in the DPRK’s nuclear adventure and blame it for a failure that is essentially a failure of all stakeholders, Trump risks making the serious mistake of splitting up the international coalition that is the means to resolve the issue peacefully,” it wrote.
“Hopefully Trump will find another path. Things will become even more difficult if Beijing and Washington are pitted against each other.”
China accounts for roughly 90 percent of North Korean trade but moved earlier in February to suspend North Korea’s coal imports until the end of the year. Coal normally accounts for about half of North Korea’s exports, but despite the coal ban, overall trade between the two countries remained healthy.
Last month China announced that imports from North Korea fell to $880 million in the six months that ended in June, down 13 percent from a year earlier. Notably, China’s coal imports from North Korea dropped precipitously, with only 2.7 million tons being shipped in the first half of 2017, down 75 percent from 2016.
But a 29 percent spike in Chinese exports to North Korea – North Korea bought $1.67 billion worth of Chinese products in the first six months of the year – helped push total trade between the two countries up 10 percent between January and June, compared with the same period last year.
The latest move to stem imports of iron, iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood products will put significantly more pressure on Pyongyang. But it is unlikely to be enough to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, which it sees as essential to its own survival, experts say.
China is very reluctant to do anything that might destabilize the regime, which is a long-standing ally. It blames American hostility towards Pyongyang for forcing the regime to develop its nuclear program, and is urging dialogue to reduce tensions.
The move against China over trade was also seen here as an attempt to distract attention away from Trump’s domestic problems.
“Bashing China cannot solve U.S. economic problems, experts say,” the state-run Xinhua news agency proclaimed.
The nationalist Global Times newspaper even tried to link developments to violence and “racial hatred” that broke out in Charlottesville at the weekend.
The source of “global instability may not be North Korea’s nuclear ambitions nor Europe’s refugee crisis, but the chaos in the US,” it wrote. “The public is also concerned that Trump is using international disputes to divert public attention away from the domestic turmoil.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer