China weighs in on U.S.-North Korea tensions

The country will not aid North Korea in an attack on the United States, while other nations offered a range of stances.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, Michael Dinneen, Files
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, Michael Dinneen, Files

China will not aid North Korea in a potential war with the United States if North Korea strikes first, the state-operated Global Times newspaper said Friday.

In an op-ed addressing growing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, the publication―which is not the official voice of the Chinese government but typically reliable on Communist party stances―emphasized that China will not interfere if the United States chooses to defend itself following an attack. But should a U.S. strike precede any North Korean action, China would come to the aid of its long-time ally.

“China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral,” the op-ed said. “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”

The op-ed comes at a tense moment in U.S.-North Korea relations. U.S. President Trump has sparred with the hermit nation since taking office, frequently lashing out at North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and criticizing North Korea’s nuclear efforts on Twitter. But when it comes to formulating a policy approach to the issue, the Trump administration has consistently argued that it should be China, not the United States, who should handle any direct efforts with North Korea.

That approach hasn’t worked out very well. As tensions between North Korea and the United States heat up, China has remained mostly silent. Overall, that makes sense―the regional giant has few incentives to intervene in North Korea’s affairs. As the isolated country’s lone major ally, China benefits from an economic partnership with Pyongyang, and war would spell instability and uncertainty across both nations.

China also has no reason to assist the Trump administration. Prior to taking office, Trump made China a frequent target, accusing the country’s government of doing everything from currency manipulation and stealing jobs to creating global warming. After being sworn in, he also made overtures to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking with established diplomatic protocol. While relations seemed to warm a bit when Chinese premier Xi Jinping visited the United States in April, they’ve grown cold again as Trump’s frustrations with North Korea have mounted.

But the past week has put China in an increasingly challenging position. Following news of North Korea’s increased nuclear potential, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury,” implying nuclear war was an immediate option. North Korea promptly threatened the U.S. territory of Guam, along with its more than 160,000 residents. Members of the Trump administration responded with a war of words, escalating the situation even further. Now, China is in a precarious position―and as Friday’s Global Times op-ed indicates, the country is preparing for some hard decisions.

China isn’t the only country weighing in on the growing tensions. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged that his nation would invoke the ANZUS treaty for the second time in history in the case of nuclear war―allowing for Australia to come to the aid of the United States.

“The United States has no stronger ally than Australia. We have an ANZUS agreement and if there is an attack on Australia or the United States…each of us will come to the other’s aid,” Turnbull said on Friday.

Others were less willing.

“Committing to an aggressive response now―while encouraging all involved to avoid escalation―is not a position we want to take,” said New Zealand Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee. His words followed earlier comments from New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English, who said any military support would be considered “on the merits” and was by no means guaranteed.

“We’re in close contact with the US and Australia but any decision New Zealand makes about North Korea we make according to our own interests,” English said.

While countries nearer to North Korea would be more immediately impacted than others across the globe, at least one European nation has felt the need to weigh in. On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her thoughts on the issue clear.

“I don’t see a military solution to this conflict,” she told reporters. “I see the need for enduring work at the U.N. Security Council…as well as tight cooperation between the countries involved, especially the U.S. and China.”

Clarifying Germany’s stance, she stated that the country was opposed to any armed conflict. “Germany will be intensively involved in any non-military solutions,” Merkel said. “But an escalation of the rhetoric is the wrong answer.”

Merkel’s cautions seemed to reflect the earlier comments of another leader. Mayor Tomihisa Taue of Nagasaki, Japan, where 70,000 people died in 1945 after the United States detonated a nuclear bomb, spoke on Tuesday at an event marking the 72nd anniversary of the bombing.

“The international situation surrounding nuclear weapons is becoming increasingly tense,” Taue said during a ceremony at Nagasaki’s Peace Park. “A strong sense of anxiety is spreading across the globe that in the not too distant future these weapons could actually be used again.”

In what was widely seen as a rebuke to both North Korea and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of Japan itself, Taue warned against any escalation.

“The nuclear threat will not end as long as nations continue to claim that nuclear weapons are essential for their national security,” the mayor said.