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China says it will not permit war in the Korean Peninsula. Why now?

Chinese President Xi Jinping made the remarks while addressing regional foreign ministers on Thursday. Did his words represent a shift in policy?

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    China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the fifth regular foreign ministers' meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Thursday, April 28, 2016, in Beijing.
    Iori Sagisawa/AP
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Chinese President Xi Jinping said Thursday that his country will "absolutely not permit war or chaos" to break out on the Korean peninsula.

Addressing a group of Asian foreign ministers, the comments were made in the context of a wider exploration of China's foreign policy. President Xi also expressed commitment to "comprehensively and fully" implement sanctions targeting North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, as mandated by the United Nations.

The remarks come amid a growing wave of activity by North Korea that many regard as provocative. Xi's comment also represents a departure from previous Chinese statements that appeared less bellicose – but observers question whether they really signal a substantial change in policy.

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"The big question here is: To whom was this directed?" Michael Auslin, an expert on US-Japan relations at the American Enterprise Institute, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

There are four likely candidates, as Dr. Auslin sees it: North Korea, South Korea, the United States, and Japan.

For South Korea, the message might be not to corner its northern neighbor with excessive pressure or threats. For Japan, it could be more along the lines of a warning to keep away, to let China deal with its precocious ally in Pyongyang as well as other security concerns in the region, particularly in light of Prime Minister Abe's efforts to boost the Japanese military.

The most likely intended recipients, however, are North Korea itself and the United States, according to David Firestein, a senior vice president at the EastWest Institute.

"China is amplifying a point it's made over the years to North Korea, essentially saying, 'Look, we really don't want to see a conflagration on the Korean Peninsula,'" Dr. Firestein tells the Monitor in a phone interview. But it's also aimed at the US, he says: a reminder that China takes peace in the peninsula "very seriously," and that any US actions that upset the balance, like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, are also "unwelcome."  

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a missile defense system that the United States and South Korea have been considering with increasing urgency in the face of North Korea's recent activities, which include a nuclear test and multiple ballistic missile tests this year.

But some analysts find that there is more to be gleaned from Xi's statement, even if the fundamental message remains consistent.

Some point to the timing, in light of comments made Wednesday by US presidential candidate Donald Trump, who spoke of applying "the leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea."

While China is certainly the country with the most sway over Pyongyang, most analysts agree that it cannot simply dictate decisions to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership; it does not have a "magic key" for opening up North Korea, as Auslin puts it.

Speaking to many of the region's top diplomats, Xi may have seen this as an opportunity to give "a show of strength," to talk in starker terms than he usually does, confident that war on the Korean peninsula is still far from imminent.

"Historically North Korea's bark has been much worse than its bite," says Firestein. "The likelihood, as they say in China, that he [Xi] would have to 'cash the cheque' is pretty low."

But "low" is not equivalent to "non-existent," and using phrases such as "absolutely not permit," as the Chinese president did, leaves some analysts wondering what lengths he would go to in backing up that assertion.

"I assume it [Xi's statement] is mainly about not letting North Korea launch an attack," says Dwight Perkins, the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy at Harvard Kennedy School, in an email interview with the Monitor. "But what if the US, South Korea, or Japan decided to launch an attack to destroy the nuclear facilities? The US came close in the 1990s. What does Xi have in mind then?"

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