With tensions in the Korean peninsula continuing to escalate, Beijing took the rather extreme step on Friday of warning that something needs to be done to wind down the U.S.-North Korea confrontation, saying the “the storm is about to break”. The heightened rhetoric of recent days follows Washington’s display of naval power with the despatch of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off the Korean coast. Though U.S. officials described the move as merely cautionary, President Donald Trump, who has made North Korea a key foreign policy concern of his administration, used the word “armada” somewhat ominously. For their part, the North Koreans have threatened nuclear retaliation in the event of any attack. In late March, the U.S. had commenced installation of the so-called Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea in response to missile tests by the North. The agreement, in the works since last year, has already increased regional tensions, entangling China as well. Washington and Seoul have emphasised that intercepting the North’s advanced development of inter-continental ballistic missiles was the real objective behind the new system. But apprehensive that its own nuclear infrastructure would be inevitably exposed to snooping by the THAAD radar, Beijing has sought to counter Seoul with trade and tourism boycotts.
Mr. Trump’s threat of unilateral action against Pyongyang in the event that China fails to rein in North Korea may partly echo the mood in Washington after the recent missile strikes in Syria. If the Chinese government views Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capability with concern, as it professes to, then it must do much to use its leverage effectively. Merely stressing the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict is not enough. Japan, Washington’s important regional ally, would view with no less consternation any potential threat to stability in its neighbourhood. American air strikes in Syria last week have raised very valid concerns about their legitimacy under international law. But they also indicate that the Trump administration may be shifting politically from a populist-driven isolationism to more conventional interventionism. His latest observations on China point to a shift from open confrontation to a possible constructive engagement. Notable here, for instance, is a willingness to eschew the previous rhetoric on China as a currency manipulator. Against this emerging backdrop, a return to a reasoned and nuanced approach on North Korea would be a most positive development in these volatile times. That would, however, require a spectacular roll-back by Pyongyang of its current nuclear capability, which includes long-range missiles that can reach targets in the Pacific. As well as sustained cooperation between China and the U.S., it is time for cooler minds to weigh in — there is nothing to be gained by aggressively staring down adversaries.
Source: The Hindu, April 15, 2017