Shortly before, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui expressed his country’s “serious concern” over the Korean stand-off in two meetings with the US and South Korean ambassadors. He also appealed to both sides to exercise restraint and avoid provocations which might lead to an unwanted conflict.
For its part, the US has been deploying nuclear-capable bombers, warships and other military systems. The Pentagon has sent two F-22 Stealth fighters to the Osan Air Base and a B-2 stealth bomber on a round-trip training mission over South Korea. It has also positioned two guided-missile destroyers in the waters near the Korean Peninsula.
According to USA Today, the American B-1 bomber pilots at the Dyess Air Force Base in Texas have changed their training programs to focus on flights towards East Asia, instead of missions to the Middle East and Afghanistan.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the number of antimissile interceptors in Alaska and California will increase to 44 – 14 more than the current number. Although he claimed that this move was a response to Pyongyang’s “irresponsible and reckless provocations”, the plan to boost these systems had been in consideration for months.
At the same time, Washington has stepped up its threats against Pyongyang. US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US “will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who recently visited Beijing, asked Chinese leaders to use their economic and political influence over Pyongyang to persuade the North Korean government to renounce its nuclear and missile programs. Given that Pyongyang has no intention to destroy its small nuclear arsenal, the statements by both American top officials sounded certainly threatening.
The US is also selling more military systems to South Korea and Japan, two main rivals of China in the region having two right-wing and nationalist governments headed by Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye respectively. The US Defense Department approved on April 3 the sale of 60 fighters – F-15 or F-35 – to South Korea.
The US Administration wants to use the Korea crisis to show South Korea and Japan that they can rely on the US nuclear umbrella. In Seoul and Tokyo, some media and political circles have been calling on their governments to develop nuclear weapons. The US rejects this idea alleging that it would lead to wider proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, the real reason of this opposition is that Washington wants to perpetuate these countries’ military dependency on the US.
A strategy against China
However, Washington is not only deploying these forces as a result of the tensions in the Korean Peninsula but as a part of its strategy to maintain its predominance in East Asia. China is becoming the most powerful country in the world and is blocking, alongside with Russia, US global plans to achieve global hegemony. It is also holding massive US debt and blocking US actions seeking to justify wars against Syria and Iran. It has also been one of the founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS group, which challenge US and Western hegemony and promote a multipolar world.
Washington has been enhancing its military ties and alliances throughout the region to contain and encircle China. In this sense, the target of the US deployments is not only North Korea but mainly China. In fact, USA Today already mentioned the training shift towards the Asia-Pacific region at Dyess in an article published in August 2012. The article added that the new strategy, which was announced in January 2012 by President Barack Obama, sought to “counter the rising power of China”.
Moreover, during a recent meeting of Obama with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Washington, the US president announced the sending of more US warships to the area of the Malacca Strait, a waterway that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans and is critical to Chinese energy imports and trade.
Warmongering Senator John McCain of Arizona has also used the Korea crisis to attack China. “Chinese behavior has been very disappointing, whether it be on cyber security, whether it be on confrontation in the South China Sea, or whether it be their failure to rein in North Korea,” he said.
For his part, James Hardy, the Asia-Pacific editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly – also thinks that Washington “is using the existence of this crisis as an excuse to ramp up its missile defenses in Asia.” He pointed out that this move is related to Washington’s plans for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.
For its part, China is logically concerned by the deployment of these military systems near its borders. Chinese leaders have also seen the deployment of missile defense systems as a threat for their country. They have openly criticized the US for announcing a large increase in its anti-missile interceptors based in Alaska. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned that “strengthening anti-missile systems will intensify antagonism”.
Both China and Russia oppose the US deployment of these systems in Asia and Europe, which are not mainly aimed at Iran and North Korea, as Washington claims, but at undermining Chinese and Russian nuclear capacity. The ability to destroy missiles would allow the US to launch a “first nuclear strike” against China or Russia while avoiding a retaliation attack against its territory. As a response, Moscow and Beijing have already started to develop their military capacities, including the manufacture of new state-of-the-art nuclear missiles being capable of overcoming any anti-missile defense system.
No second thoughts on North Korea
Although there have been some claims in Western media that China could be having second thoughts on maintaining its support for North Korea, the truth is that the latter remains a key Chinese ally. Most Chinese think that the links with North Korea, despite all the difficulties and disagreements, remain useful for China. The Chinese leadership is probably conscious that Washington, in order to advance its own strategy, would like to see a rift between both traditional allies.
According to the Chinese publication Global Times, the economic importance of China-North Korea ties has grown in recent years. In terms of China’s total economic activity, it is still small, but in terms of Northeast China, it has gained importance.
On the other hand, “the strategic considerations that have kept China involved in the Korean Peninsula for hundreds of years have not suddenly disappeared”, wrote the Global Times. In this sense, North Korea is China’s sole ally in East Asia and a buffer state facing hostile powers as the US, Japan or South Korea. It is worth recalling that the Chinese army intervened in the Korean War in 1950 to prevent the occupation of North Korea by US and South Korean forces. Thus, it prevented the creation of a pro-US state directly on China’s border and a future US invasion of China itself.
Unlike Western countries, China has not blamed only North Korea for the current crisis but it has also criticized the US, Japan and South Korea’s hard-line positions and confrontational policies towards Pyongyang. Chinese media dismiss the idea that North Korea should eliminate its nuclear weapons, as the US demands. Actually, with examples such as Libya (denuclearized completely in accordance with US demands but subjected to US-backed regime change anyway), the North is not going to abandon its program because it is its best guarantee of survival.
Moreover, North Korea has already gone through a bitter experience over its negotiations with the US. In the 1990s and 2000s, Pyongyang sought to normalize its relations with Washington in exchange for putting an end to its nuclear program. In 2007, it shuttered the Yongbyon reactor, its sole one producing plutonium as a result of a nuclear disarmament agreement with the US. However, shortly after the deal collapsed and North Korea has just announced that the reactor will be restarted and used to produce more nuclear weapons from now on.
Therefore, China understands that it cannot abandon North Korea from a strategic perspective especially at a time when it has become the target of a policy of containment and strangulation by the US and its allies. Beijing can only go so far as to do “soft criticism” but not “hard criticism” of North Korean actions. Both countries have a common objective: opposing US-sponsored military alliances and deployments in the region, which are not just aimed at North Korea, but at China as well. Therefore, China’s policy of support for North Korea will continue.