China stresses restraint as US and South Korea start joint navy drills
There is a high chance that North Korea will fire off another nuclear or missile test in response to exercises, analyst warns
China called for restraint over the Korean peninsula on Monday as South Korea and the United States began five days of naval drills in nearby waters.
The drills overlap with a major Communist Party gathering starting on Wednesday, and Chinese diplomatic observers said Beijing might interpret the exercises as an unfriendly gesture.
South Korea’s defence ministry said 40 navy ships from both countries, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, were taking part in the exercises off the peninsula in response to threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Beijing warned that continued tension over the peninsula was in no party’s interests.
“We hope all relevant parties can exercise restraint and work to push the current situation towards easing and resuming dialogue,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said.
The exercises, which end on Friday, started two days before the party begins its 19th national congress to determine China’s leadership for the next five years.
The drills are taking place not only in waters east of the peninsula but also to the west, an area China refers to as the Yellow Sea.
Jilin University northeast Asia specialist Wang Sheng said the drills might be an attempt to put pressure on China before US President Donald Trump’s state visit to Beijing next month. If so, the exercises would have the opposite of the intended effect.
“The Yellow Sea is a very sensitive area because it is the gateway to the capital, Beijing. And the 19th party congress is imminent,” Wang said.
“The drill will add uncertainty to Sino-US relations, and damage trust between the militaries of the two countries.”
China protested in 2010 when the US and South Korea held joint drills in the Yellow Sea after the sinking of South Korea’s corvette Cheonan in an attack Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. But Beijing was muted in its opposition when similar exercises took place a year ago.
North Korea has called joint military exercises by the US and South Korea “rehearsals for war”.
Chinese analysts said there was a high chance North Korea could see this week’s drills as grounds for another nuclear or missile test.
“[The drills] would be seen as provocative by Pyongyang, which might retaliate by conducting another test,” Fudan University international relations specialist Cai Jian said.
Russian lawmakers who returned from a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month said North Korea was preparing to test a long-range missile that it said could reach the US west coast.
In addition, South Korean intelligence officials and analysts have said North Korea might time its next move to coincide with China’s party congress
“Pyongyang has a history of conducting its tests when China is hosting a major event to express its discontent towards China, which cooperates with the US and the international community to pressure North Korea,” Cai said. “So this time the tension will be very high.”