North Korea nuclear crisis
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A file picture of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in a training exercise with Japanese naval vessels last month. The US carrier and a strike group has now been deployed to waters off the Korean peninsula. Photo: EPA

China’s nuclear get-out clause over defence of North Korea

Beijing not obliged to defend Pyongyang as its development of nuclear weapons breaches mutual defence pact, experts say as US warns it may launch strike against North

China is not obliged to help defend North Korea from military attack if the reclusive state developed nuclear weapons, according to Chinese diplomatic and military observers.

The assessment comes as senior officials in Washington warn of a strike against the Pyongyang regime.

China and North Korea signed a mutual aid and cooperation treaty in 1961 as they sought to mount a united front against Western powers. It specifies that if one of the parties comes under armed attack, the other should render immediate assistance, including military support.

But the treaty also says both nations should safeguard peace and security.

For China, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons in violation of the United Nations treaty on non-proliferation could amount to a breach of their pact, leaving Beijing with no obligation to lend a hand, observers said.

China could also have a get-out clause if any US military intervention was not deemed an armed attack.

“It’s hard to say how China would assist North Korea militarily in case of war, since North Korea is developing nuclear weapons, an act that might have already breached the treaty between the two nations,” said Li Jie, a retired Chinese naval colonel.

Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said China would need to provide military assistance to North Korea if US land forces invaded, but Pyongyang’s violation of the UN non-proliferation treaty was a “strong reason” for Beijing to choose not to help.

Threats of military action against North Korea have grown, with US President Donald Trump saying Washington was prepared to act alone against Pyongyang.

A strike group headed by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson has also been deployed to waters off the Korean peninsula.

Nevertheless, Beijing, North Korea’s economic lifeline, does have some interest in backing up its old ally. China fears the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could lead to an influx of refugees into China and eliminate the buffer zone keeping US troops from the Chinese border.

A woman walks past a television screen at a railway station in Seoul last week showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on April 5. Photo: AFP

But Ni said the possibility of a full-scale war was slim because the US was unlikely to send land forces into North Korea, preferring air strikes or missile launches instead.

“The situation would be much easier for China in this case. China would not have to mobilise its land forces to help North Korea,” he said. “China then only needs to send the North Sea Fleet or military aircraft to step up patrols of the Korean peninsula.”

Zhou Chenming, from the Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies think tank, said war over North Korea was unlikely because all the parties involved were looking for ways to defuse tensions.

But if military conflict did erupt, China could help Pyongyang with supplies such as food and weaponry, such as old tanks.

Additional reporting by Minnie Chan

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China ‘has get-out clauses’ if N Korea comes under attack