President Trump warned North Korea on Tuesday that the US would counter its nuclear threats with “fire and fury.”
That didn’t sit particularly well with the Chinese government.
On Wednesday, Xinhua, Beijing’s official state news agency, published an editorial slamming Trump’s comments. Though it didn’t actually mention the president’s name, the wording left no doubt about whom the editorial was referring to.
“The bottom line on the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is that there must not be any armed conflict there,” read the editorial. “There is no room for any related party to play with fire on the issue.”
At the same time, the editorial called on North Korea to stop its threatening rhetoric. On Monday, the North warned the United States that it would respond with nuclear weapons if the US attacked.
“Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name.
This isn’t the first time the Chinese government has used its Xinhua news agency to make a dig at Trump. Just last week, Xinhua published another editorial that referred to Trump’s incessant Twitter habit as “emotional venting.”
“Trump is quite a personality, and he likes to tweet,” said the editorial, translated by the New York Times. “But emotional venting cannot become a guiding policy for solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula,” referring to the Korean Peninsula.
China wants open dialogue, not conflict, with North Korea
China is North Korea’s closest and most important diplomatic and economic partner, accounting for 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade. This year, China’s overall trade with North Korea actually increased, even after China stopped importing North Korean coal in February.
That’s partly why Trump believed China could strong-arm North Korea into halting its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But China can’t solve the nuclear crisis on its own — a fact that’s become clear to the Trump administration. Just last week, Trump bashed China on Twitter for not doing more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I am very disappointed in China,” Trump tweeted. “They do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue.”
So why can’t China rein in North Korea? Vox’s Alex Ward explained three reasons:
First, China uses North Korea as a buffer. If the Koreas were to unify, which remains an extremely thin possibility right now, then for at least some period, American troops would be stationed in a country that borders China. For Beijing, that’s a no-no.
Second, should the Kim regime fall, the whole country would fall with it. Having that kind of instability, with millions of refugees flocking to the border, would not make the Chinese government happy. After all, China prides itself on stability in all its forms.
Finally, having America, Japan, and South Korea worried about North Korea takes the focus off China. China has many objectives in the region, and having its adversaries’ heads turned as it makes moves in the South China Sea and elsewhere is helpful to its cause.
China is thus advocating for open dialogue rather than armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Wednesday’s Xinhua editorial called for a return to the stalled six-party talks, negotiations started in 2003 involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia around North Korea’s nuclear program.
“Reality has shown that tough tit-for-tat confrontations can lead nowhere, and that only dialogue can help address reasonable security concerns of the related parties for a solution acceptable to all, ensure denuclearization on the peninsula and bring a lasting peace to the entire region,” read the editorial.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, also recently emphasized the goal of opening dialogue with North Korea at a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Manila.
At this point, it’s unclear whether the talks will resume anytime soon. But it seems like China is trying to make them a reality.