The last two weeks have seen an increasingly shrill rhetoric from North Korea, provocative tests of missiles, and US and South Korean military manoeuvres. The latter have evoked harsher North Korean warnings: its state media have threatened to deliver “the most ruthless blow” if there is “even the smallest provocation” from the United States, and that the United States and South Korea could be “completely destroyed in an instant" if North Korea were to launch a pre-emptive strike.
The US, meanwhile, has conducted missile defence drills with the South Korean and Japanese navies, sent its newest F-35 stealth fighters to train in South Korea, flown B-1 bombers to South Korea, and commenced “Max Thunder,” billed as the second-largest military flying exercise between US and South Korean forces.
The Pentagon has also dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Korean Peninsula. The British tabloid, Sunday Express, has spoken of an imminent World War III.
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, the last in September last year. It also has conducted numerous medium- and long-range missile tests since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.
While China is pursuing a balanced approach between the US and North Korea, China’s interests differ from those of the US in crucial areas. In the context of North Korea, Chinese media generally portrays the US as an aggressive, militarist and interfering forceTalmiz Ahmad
It is in this fraught background that Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Washington on 6-7 April. China is North Korea’s principal ally, accounts for 90 percent of its trade and is the main source of the country’s food and energy. In spite of Trump’s anti-China remarks during the election campaign, the most interesting outcome of this interaction was China’s support for the US vis-à-vis North Korea.
On 17 April, the State Department said that China had sent the Trump administration “positive signals” that it would increase economic sanctions to pressure North Korea to abandon its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Later, a day after North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister said Pyongyang would test missiles weekly and use nuclear weapons if threatened, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing was “gravely concerned” about North Korea's recent nuclear and missile activities.
In the same press conference, spokesman Lu Kang praised recent US statements on the North Korean issue: “American officials did make some positive and constructive remarks... such as using whatever peaceful means possible to resolve the (Korean) Peninsula nuclear issue.”
Given the close economic ties between North Korea and China, US military officials have said Beijing is critical to solving the situation, with President Donald Trump recently commending Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts to curb Pyongyang’s activities.
The latter have included reducing fuel sales to North Korea. This has evoked some harsh words from Pyongyang, including the warning that China “should get itself ready to face the catastrophic consequences to its relations with the DPRK.”
China’s strategic concerns
While China is pursuing a balanced approach between the US and North Korea, China’s interests differ from those of the US in crucial areas. In the context of North Korea, Chinese media generally portrays the US as an aggressive, militarist and interfering force.
China on its part is chary of efforts to pressurise the North Korean regime militarily, being concerned about the unpredictable North Korean retaliation should the regime in Pyongyang fear collapse, the attendant region wide political turmoil and an influx of refugees into China itself.
China also views negatively the possible reunification of the Koreas under a South Korean government that is closely allied to the United States, since that would expand US influence at its borders. More immediately, China sees with great disfavour the increasing US military’s presence in South Korea, specifically the US decision to deploy elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, missile defence system.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said THAAD is “not a simple technical issue, but an out-and-out strategic one”. Countering a powerful missile defence system means more advanced Chinese missiles, with more aggressive deployment.
The security affairs commentator Ian Armstrong has pointed out that China is not so much concerned about the interception capabilities of THAAD, but another major THAAD component — the AN/TPY-2 radar, which identifies and communicates the location of missile targets to the interceptor.
Though the US and South Korea have repeatedly stated that THAAD will be directed only at North Korean missiles, the Chinese know that THAAD’s radar can be easily switched into a long-range mode that would give the US an early warning of Chinese missile launches.
Chinese commentators see this as evidence of US reluctance to work with China on promoting regional stability and see no alternative to pursuing their own missile programmes to counter the US’s strategic advantage in the region.
The latter could include hypersonic glide vehicles and multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs are difficult to detect and would thus effectively counter the strategic advantages provided by THAAD.
China is also expected to accelerate the development of its hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which can bypass THAAD’s interception capabilities. Observers expect China to deploy its HGVs between 2920-2025, though this programme could get speeded up to meet the threat from THAAD.
North Korea will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People's Army on Tuesday, 25 April, and has marked important events in the past by launching missiles or conducting nuclear tests.
As the USS Carl Vinson speeds toward the region and US officials have warned that “all options are on the table”, there are fears that North Korea might use this day for its sixth nuclear test.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.