The United States and China appear to have reached accord over a draft U.N. resolution on fresh sanctions against North Korea. Anonymous diplomatic sources say that the United States aims to hold a vote Aug. 5. This has been the U.S. and Chinese approach for some time — to first engage in bilateral dialogue before formally proposing sanctions measures to the broader U.N. Security Council.
Washington handed over a new draft sanctions resolution to China shortly after an emergency July 5 U.N. Security Council meeting in reaction to North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. The United States insisted that it wanted to avoid the watered-down sanctions leveled in the past, a specific allusion to China's pattern of playing defense in the United Nations to ensure that sanctions do not go too far in destabilizing North Korea.
Shortly after the July 5 meeting, China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jiey cautioned against rushing the measures and said an improvement of the situation might reduce the urgency, specifically noting his desire for further North Korean tests to be prevented by diplomatic means. On July 28, however, North Korea tested its second ICBM, ratcheting up pressure on China to act. The following week, the U.S. announced it would launch new investigations into Chinese trade practices — a sign that it will no longer allow hoped-for cooperation to limit it from firm action. The investigation could allow the U.S. administration to eventually unleash a slate of retaliatory trade measures against China — a prospect very much on Beijing's mind as it decides how to proceed regarding North Korea.
According to anonymous U.N. diplomats, the U.S.-proposed sanctions would stop countries from increasing the number of North Korean workers they accept and from engaging in new joint ventures with the country. They would also ban coal, iron, seafood and lead exports with the goal of reducing North Korea's export income by a third. In the bilateral talks ahead of the most recent June 2 U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China balked at broader proposals and instead agreed only to limited measures on individual entities. In early 2017, however, Beijing took some limited steps in terms of banning coal and cutting some humanitarian programs as well as a moderate curb of oil exports.
To come into force, the resolution would need the approval of nine U.N. Security Council member states. It would also have to avoid a veto from permanent members. The veto is the biggest worry for the United States, given that Russia has the power to block the resolution. Moscow shows every sign that it is willing to act as a spoiler in the U.S. strategy to contain the North Korean threat, questioning the assessment that North Korea test-fired ICBMs and stepping in with fuel exports to North Korea. The question now becomes whether Russia will pull the trigger on a veto, or whether it will allow the U.N. measures to proceed with the intention of undercutting them in practice — as it has done before. Moscow's incentive to act as a spoiler has only become greater since new U.S. sanctions on Russia were signed into law Aug. 2. The raft of measures also included enhanced sanctions on North Korea, with provisions specifically aimed at targeting Russian energy shipments to the North — something Russia is increasingly doing under the radar in case further sanctions are implemented. Russia's new ambassador to the U.N. met with his Chinese counterpart Aug. 3 and cautioned that a bilateral agreement between the United States and China was by no means universal.
Russian pushback on sanctions could, however, work to China's advantage by giving the country what it wants but can't actually work toward. With the United States showing every sign of stepping up trade pressure and sanctions targeting Chinese entities doing business with North Korea, Beijing has every reason to cooperate on U.N. sanctions. During the closed-door talks between China and the United States, China worked closely with Moscow as well, and the ball is now in Russia's court.