According to an un-named defense official, China has begun placing bombers on high alert, as well as working to increase its air-ready fleet of fighter jets by stepping up scheduled maintenance. Their ready posture, however, is not as a result of tensions between China and the United States, but rather is believed to be in preparation for the possibility of armed conflict in North Korea.
The Pentagon source who requested anonymity said the United States has assessed these steps to be part of an ongoing effort to “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency.” Although the official did not elaborate, the logical leap from that statement would indicate that China may be willing to use military force to disarm Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal if tensions boil over into actual war.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said he was “aware of the relevant reports” of a heightened alert in the Chinese Air Force, but said he has “no information to give.”
China has long been North Korea’s biggest and most powerful ally, often stepping in on their behalf as rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington escalates. However, since a recent meeting between Chinese Presidet Xi and American President Donald Trump, both nations seemed to have softened their posture toward one another – with Trump backing away from his claims that China is a “currency manipulator,” and China publicly acknowledging the need for them to play a more active role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Beijing has had a long-standing foreign policy regarding North Korea that is based on three primary tenants; no war, no instability, no nukes. Thus far, they have seemed to prioritize the first two points of their policy to the extent that they’ve been ignoring the third – as a stable North Korea is in China’s best interest. However, as Kim Jong Un’s aggressive international threats have grown to include preemptive nuclear strikes in Asia as well as the continental United States, it would seem they have been forced to reassess their position.
If the United States chooses to set its sights on removing the Kim regime from power, the already struggling North Korean population would likely flee their homes in search of refuge in historically friendly China – as their standards of living are already extremely low in many parts of the country and a collapse of the existing infrastructure, oppressive as it may be, would almost certainly further degrade conditions in the short-term. As a result, China has prioritized maintaining the status quo in North Korea – until now.
It seems possible that China may be willing to participate in joint international military action against Kim’s regime in order to ensure they have a seat at the table. If the United States were to unilaterally take action, or were to do so with the aid of allies like Japan, China would be forced into a spectator position; however, agreeing to work alongside such a coalition would ensure their interests are taken into consideration as operational planning proceeds.
Possibly worse still for China, if the United States were to topple North Korean’s government, there could be the possibility of a newly unified Korean state under the comparably stable South Korean government. That would mean a significantly larger operational space for allied American military assets right along China’s border – as North Korea currently serves as a barrier between them and the American friendly South Korea.
Sources within the White House claim China has become the primary focus of Trump’s North Korean strategy; as their interests in maintaining a stable North Korea place them in a position to use diplomatic means to disarm Kim. China accounts for 85-90% of North Korean exports and imports, so their leverage over the North Korean economy alone may be sufficient to dissuade Kim’s nuclear ambitions.
“Nobody thinks the Chinese are going to press North Korea militarily or bring the regime to its knees, but the strategy looks to China to find a political solution more than anything else,” one White House official claimed on the condition of anonymity.
For their part, China seems willing to play nice, even going so far as to credit Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks regarding America’s interest in seeking a peaceful resolution to the situation.
“American officials did make some positive and constructive remarks … such as using whatever peaceful means possible to resolve the (Korean) Peninsula nuclear issue. This represents a general direction that we believe is correct and should be adhered to,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, adding that China is “gravely concerned” about North Korea’s continued missile tests and nuclear pursuits.
China has already begun barring North Korean coal shipments from entering their country, though three North Korean coal vessels arrived at Chinese ports on Thursday. It cannot be confirmed that the ships successfully unloaded any coal, however, and China has made statements indicating that they did not.
“There have been some reports that some coal ships have tied up in port. You are aware if these ships continue to remain out at sea, away from port, we need to make some humanitarian consideration for their crews,” Lu said.
Of course, even with China placing increased political and economic pressure on North Korea, there is no guarantee that Kim will be willing to listen to them. Thus far, every effort to encourage him to do away with North Korea’s nuclear program has been met with nothing but hostility and continued threats.
Whether or not China can serve as the missing piece to solve the growing quagmire on the peninsula that divides the Sea of Japan from the Yellow Sea, of course, is yet to be seen.
Image courtesy of Popular Mechanics