The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperative Friendship Treaty concluded between China and North Korea in 1961 has often been interpreted as a de facto military alliance treaty between the two countries.
At first glance, it might appear so, but at closer look, it is easy to find that the treaty is in fact full of ambiguities. As such, it would be a wishful thinking to believe Beijing is treaty-bound to send troops to help Pyongyang in times of war.
For example, Article 1 of the treaty stipulates that the two signatories “must make every effort to help preserve peace in Asia as well as in the rest of the world”.
Based on Article 1, the second article then goes on to state that when either signatory of the treaty is invaded by a third power, the other party will be under a treaty obligation to provide as much military support as possible.
However, in fact there is a lot of room for interpretation of Article 1, the provision that basically lays down the legal and theoretical pre-condition for the entire Sino-North Korean treaty.
For instance, the fact that Pyongyang has been conducting nuclear tests and continuing to test-fire ballistic missiles despite international condemnation can be seen as a violation of Article 1 because it clearly works against the preservation of peace in Asia. This automatically calls into question whether the rest of the treaty still applies.
Besides, there is currently no international consensus on the exact definition of “act of invasion”.
Since North Korea has claimed that it is working aggressively to develop a model of ICBMs with an operational range that can cover the continental US, if Washington launches a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang to take out its nuclear facilities, it can be interpreted by Beijing as an act of self-defense rather than invasion, under which China would be under no obligation to assist North Korea.
Meanwhile, “military support” stipulated in Article 2 of the treaty is a rather vague term that doesn’t necessarily refer to directly sending troops.
Instead, it could refer to the sharing of intelligence or offering of military aid in the form of money, weapons, food or other wartime material.
In other words, Beijing enjoys a lot of freedom when it comes to defining “military support”, therefore it would be an oversimplification to think that China is bound by the treaty to send troops to help North Korea if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula.
After all, the Sino-North Korean treaty was concluded at the height of the Cold War, and 56 years on, things have changed a lot in international diplomacy.
Therefore, it would be unrealistic to think Beijing would allow this outdated treaty to post constraints on its room for diplomatic maneuver. Simply put, Beijing would only interpret the treaty in a way that serves its best national interests.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 24
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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