China: Navigating North Korea Tensions

Published on August 11, 2017

*** According to a senior official in China’s Office of the Central National Security Commission, Beijing does not believe Pyongyang will, as it has threatened, fire its intermediate-range missiles at the US territory and western Pacific military base of Guam, nor does it believe President Donald Trump will launch a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. ***

Beijing will carefully seek to avoid an unnecessary or unhelpful entanglement between the two. But that does not mean it will refrain from pressing Washington on the recent US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea, even as it condemns the provocations from Pyongyang.

Officials in Beijing also point to two developments on top of North Korea’s missile launches they believe may have contributed to the latest escalation in rhetoric and warnings from Washington.

The first is the adoption, two days ago, by China and ASEAN of a new framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. This Sino-ASEAN communique for the first time underlined “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in conducting activities” by the claimants to the conflict as well as by all ASEAN states. Chinese officials maintain the US was not pleased with this language change.

A second source of friction has been Trump’s clear frustration at the lack of sufficient follow up and pressure on North Korea after China’s agreement to adopt sanctions on North Korean exports in the UN Security Council (see SGH 8/2/17, “North Korea: Beijing Convenes over Missile Launch”).

Chinese security officials draw a direct link between these events and the deployment yesterday of a US Navy destroyer within 12 miles of the Meiji/Mischief Reef, part of the Nansha/Spratly Islands, in a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea.

While clearly seen as a provocation, sources in Beijing downplay the FONOP as symbolic passage, and maintain that strategic environment ultimately remains favorable to China. China has been building islands in the South China Sea, with US warships occasionally sailing close by, and Beijing does not believe the FONOP operation will alter that status quo.

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