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Would China Strike North Korea?

President Donald Trump gestures as he and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla

By Finian Cunningham

The "extraordinary" mobilization of bomber aircraft was reportedly acknowledged by China's foreign ministry, giving no further details.

The general assumption is that China is taking a defensive position in case the US administration of President Donald Trump follows through on its repeated threats of carrying out pre-emptive strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities.

Traditionally an ally of the communist government in Pyongyang, Beijing is widely assumed to be protecting its junior partner by flexing a deterrence force against the US. China has openly urged the US to not take unilateral military action against North Korea over the latter's controversial nuclear program.

Beijing has been calling for a diplomatic solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, a crisis which seems to be intensifying following a dire warning this week from US Vice President Mike Pence that the "sword is ready," which was met with reciprocal threats from North Korea that it would "reduce the US to ashes."

Despite calls for diplomacy from China, it is also clear that Beijing is becoming exasperated with North Korea, known formally as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. China is perplexed by what it sees as the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Un forming an "epicenter of instability" on its borders.

Earlier this month, there was even an editorial carried by Chinese state-run media warning that China might be forced to launch its own military strikes on North Korea if it comes down to the "bottom line" of preserving stability and security in the region.

China certainly has strong historic ties with North Korea. It sided with the country during the Korean War (1950-1953) and probably salvaged the North from defeat by the US and its South Korean ally.

China is also a vital trading partner for North Korea, helping it to cope with decades of Western-imposed economic sanctions.

However, the once-strategic relationship has soured in recent years. China's President Xi Jinping has never met North Korea's Kim Jong-Un since the latter came to power nearly six years ago. It is increasingly evidently, too, that Beijing and Pyongyang are not on the same page when it comes to the nuclear issue.

While North Korea asserts that it will never give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology, Beijing has officially repudiated this path for Pyongyang, contending that the international community will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

It is also apparent that China's global strategic interests are being hampered by its association with North Korea, which is portrayed as a pariah state in the Western media. One can safely assume that China views a sound economic partnership with the US as much more important than being in hock to North Korea.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping appears to have developed a close personal relationship with his American counterpart, Donald Trump. Since their friendly dinner at Trump's Florida beach resort earlier this month, the two leaders have shared several phone calls.

The Trump administration has exerted pressure on China to get tough on North Korea and Beijing seems to be obliging, having recently slapped sanctions on North Korea's coal imports and commercial air travel.

The Trump administration is reportedly offering China concessions on trade in exchange for its cooperation to rein in North Korea. Trump's sudden turnaround in declaring that China is "not a currency manipulator," in contrast to what he had repeatedly claimed in the past, seems to be a sign of tactical tango.

This week as news of China's military mobilization was emerging, Trump sounded confident. He enigmatically told reporters: "As far as North Korea is concerned, we are in very good shape. I respect [President Xi Jinping] very much, and I think he’s working very hard… Some very unusual moves have been made over the past two or three hours and I really have confidence that the president will try very hard."

It's a fair bet that, in the scale of things, China views its future economic relationship with the US as more crucial than past "ideological" ties with North Korea. For China, it wants a stable North Korea that causes Beijing no aggravation with others. At the moment, North Korea is acting incorrigibly in the opposite way, from China's point of view.

Beijing also does not want a full-blown conflict to erupt as would happen if the US were to preemptively strike Pyongyang. In the latter scenario, the North would retaliate by hitting South Korea and possibly Japan, with untold consequences.

An attack by the US could also lead to regime change in Pyongyang, with the installation by the American forces of a regime that is subordinate to Washington and hostile to China. China would henceforth lose its North Korea "buffer zone."

Rather than waiting to respond to events, it may be speculated that China is preparing to take the initiative. Given the reported mobilization of Chinese military forces and the aforementioned threats from Beijing of launching its own strikes on North Korea, one can envisage two scenarios.

Firstly, in the event of a US pre-emptive strike that decapitates the North Korean leadership, China's forces would be ready to immediately move across the Yalu River to fill the ensuing power vacuum. Such a move would prevent massive refugee dislocation into China's territory, and it would allow Beijing to shore up a new regime in North Korea according to its political interests, not Washington's.

A second, a more far-reaching scenario is that China views the present situation as being so unstable and prone to eventual war that it seizes the moment by taking military action against North Korea before the US does.

All such contingencies are fraught with immense danger as well as legal and moral hazards. But in light of the huge strategic interests at stake for China, the notion of an unprecedented action based on instincts of self-preservation is not inconceivable.

The dilemma for China arises from its seeming acceptance of the false premises put forward by the US on dealing with the Korean Peninsula. If the crisis is viewed narrowly, and erroneously, as stemming solely or largely from North Korea's recalcitrance and its desire to develop nuclear weapons, then ultimately the solution begged by this logic is to neutralize North Korea.

But such a narrative is flawed. North Korea and its nuclear weapons are not the primary problem. They are but symptomatic of the underlying cause of US aggression. As former US State Department official Lawrence Wilkerson, among others, has pointed out, Washington has repeatedly betrayed commitments to resolve the Korean crisis through dialogue and political concessions.

In the past, China has urged the resumption of multi-party regional talks which the US abandoned during the George W. Bush administration. China has also proposed a mutual de-escalation of military forces on the Peninsula by North Korea and the US.

One wonders, though, has the calculus now shifted in Beijing to the point where it is considering "taking care" of the North Korea problem in a drastic way?


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