US carrier’s arrival highlights China’s worries over North Korea as key party congress looms
Beijing calls for calm on peninsula as USS Ronald Reagan visits Hong Kong ahead of military exercises with the South
The United States is preparing to flex its military muscle while China has called for restraint over the crisis on the Korean peninsula, just two weeks out from a key political meeting in Beijing.
The biggest American aircraft carrier based in Asia, the USS Ronald Reagan, powered into Hong Kong waters on Monday, a day after US President Donald Trump tweeted that his top diplomat was “wasting his time” trying to talk to Pyongyang.
Trump’s missive took direct aim at US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s commitment in Beijing on Saturday that the US would keep channels open for dialogue with North Korea.
The US president’s comment appeared to narrow the prospects for talks, a point that could be underlined later this week when the US supercarrier Ronald Reagan is expected to head to waters off the Korean peninsula for joint exercises with the South Korean navy.
South Korean media reports said the warship would take part in the drills in the middle of this month.
Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, the aircraft carrier’s strike group commander, said only that the vessels would conduct “scheduled operational training” with a “partner in the region”.
But with preparations under way for a changing of the leadership line-up at the Communist Party’s five-yearly national congress this month, Beijing has continued to call on all parties to exercise restraint.
“We hope all parties remain restrained and avoid provocations, and prevent confrontation and tension from rising,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday.
It also said it had given permission for the carrier’s port call in Hong Kong, despite the “highly sensitive nature of the current situation on the Korean peninsula”.
Analysts said the unresolved tensions on the peninsula had made the central leadership “nervous”.
Zhang Tuosheng, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said Beijing wanted the congress to go smoothly but there was little it could do to ensure the crisis did not detract from the gathering.
“Beijing wants the congress to be successful. [It is] an important meeting that will lay the groundwork for China’s future development. But what Beijing can do now [in terms of North Korea] is very limited, unless the US and South Korea stop joint naval exercises,” Zhang said.
“North Korea is gradually approaching the threshold of becoming a nuclear country. Nobody can be sure that it won’t test a hydrogen bomb again when Beijing holds the party congress. What Beijing can do now is call on all parties involved to exercise restraint.”
Nevertheless, analysts said military exchanges between China and the US appeared to warming, with Dalton saying he would visit the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong garrison during his stopover.
The last US aircraft carrier to visit the city was the USS George Washington in 2014 – Beijing rejected a request for the USS John C Stennis to stop in Hong Kong in April last year as the South China Sea became a flashpoint between the two countries.
Liang Yunxiang, an international relations specialist from Peking University, said the warship’s visit this week was a sign that China and the US had established some trust.
“In this sense, the two countries might have reached a tacit agreement not to intensify the already tense situation on the Korean peninsula,” Liang said.
He said Beijing was worried that Pyongyang would try to “make trouble” by launching a missile during the party congress, given Pyongyang slapped Beijing in the face with a test as China hosted an international summit in Xiamen last month.
Liang said Beijing believed “the problem now is not the US, but North Korea”.
Dalton also took aim at the missile tests, saying the North’s two launches over Japan and last month’s nuclear test had made his strike group “feel tremendous responsibility to defend the US and its allies in the region”.