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Sino-US relations

US calls for China’s help over concerns North Korea may launch missile from submarine

Navy chief says two sides must address restive state’s ‘provocative and unacceptable military behaviour’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 1:00pm

The timing of the United States’ appeal for China to provide more support in monitoring North Korea’s military activities is likely related to intelligence suggesting Pyongyang might be planning to launch a nuclear missile from a submarine, analysts said.

The situation in North Korea was one of the highlights of Thursday’s video telephone conference between the commanders of the US and Chinese navies, Admiral John Richardson, chief of US Naval Operations, told Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

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In a statement issued after the meeting, Richardson stressed the importance of regional maritime security and the need for China and the US to work together “to address [North Korea’s] provocative and unacceptable military behaviour”.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said that while the US was making a political gesture in raising the subject through one of the most important channels for military exchanges, its timing suggested the US saw a practical need for the Chinese navy to get involved.

“[The US] hopes the PLA navy will provide support in the event of Pyongyang conducting its next missile launch from a submarine,” Li said.

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“The US wanted to use the call to send a message to North Korea that China will help the Pentagon to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.”

On Thursday, CNN cited two US defence officials as saying that a North Korean submarine had been engaged in “unusual deployment activity” over the past 48 hours. It said the 65m-long vessel had sailed about 100km into international waters in the East China Sea, further than it had ever gone before. The unusual activity caused the US and South Korea to raise their alert level slightly.

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However, statement from the Chinese navy about the video conference made no mention of the North Korea issue. Instead, Shen said the priority for the two navies should be creating a mechanism for exchanges between frontline commanders.

Another military expert said that if North Korea did launch a missile from a submarine China’s navy could provide useful support to the US in gathering data.

“The Chinese navy could help to monitor and detect Pyongyang’s moves, and possibly even search for warheads after the launches,” the person said on condition of anonymity.

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“All those things are important in assessing North Korea’s missile technology,” the person said.

Unfortunately for the US, there was little incentive for China to highlight the request in its account of the talks between the two navy leaders.

“America focuses on its own interests and national security, but it doesn’t want to lift the arms embargo against China that has been going on for nearly three decades, and still sells weapons to Taiwan. Why would China want to help them?” the analyst said.

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US President Donald Trump had hoped for greater help from China in exerting its influence over North Korea after the two leaders held a high-profile summit in Florida in April. However, Trump said last month that Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea to rein in its nuclear programme had failed.

On July 4, Pyongyang announced it had successfully conducted the first test of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, and that it had mastered the technology to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile. Military experts said the missile, with a range of more than 6,000km, could be used to strike Alaska.