A North Korean female soldier (right) looks back as she and another patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River, the China-North Korea border river, near North Korea's town of Sinuiju, opposite to the Chinese border city of Dandong, November 28, 2010. Photo: AP
The US has a decisive role in dealing with the increasingly deteriorating North Korean nuclear crisis, and the key to solving the issue lies in whether the US and North Korea can build mutual trust, according to experts.
A new round of missile-testing by North Korea has raised tensions in East Asia and prompted the US to enhance its efforts to deepen its alliance with South Korea by conducting large-scale joint military drills and deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system.
"Though being a partner, promoter and mediator in solving the North Korean nuclear crisis, China cannot decide the development direction of the situation on the Korean Peninsula itself, because it depends on whether the US is willing to change its tough policy toward North Korea," Qian Liyan, an international relations expert, told Sino-US.com.
However, during a recent three-nation tour of East Asia, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US would consider military action as an option if the threat of North Korea's weapons program reached a level that threatens the South Korean and American forces.
Also, in a recent interview on CNN's Erin Burnett "OutFront", US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley ruled out the possibility of the US returning to the negotiating table of the six-party talks, and urged China and Russia to get North Korea to reverse course on its efforts to increase its nuclear capabilities and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Haley's remarks came as US President Donald Trump blamed China for not taking on its responsibility in easing the Korean Peninsula tensions on his Twitter account. "North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!" the president tweeted.
Li Nan, a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institution, a China-based public policy think tank, said that if the communication between the US and North Korea cannot make progress or turns out to be a failure, the Trump administration is inclined to seek closer military ties with South Korea and Japan in the region while pressing China to put more pressure on North Korea.
Li said that such an aggressive policy would provoke North Korea and prompt it to continue to develop its own nuclear weapons. "It means that in the future the US may be threatened by a North Korea that is capable of posing a direct threat to its territory (with nuclear weapons)," Li noted, adding that it will not be helpful to the enhancement of mutual trust between the US and North Korea.
Many military experts believe that North Korea has made significant advances both with nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
China's approach to economic sanctions
China has long clamored for a political and diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
And recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed that North Korea suspend its missile and nuclear testing in exchange for a halt to military exercises conducted by American and South Korean forces. The minister also reiterated the importance of the parallel-track approach, another key solution proposed by Beijing to simultaneously denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and replace the armistice by a peace agreement. But the US and its ally South Korea seem to have had little interest in China's proposals.
"The solution to the North Korean nuclear issue needs China-US cooperation. Enforcing the UN resolutions to impose economic sanctions on North Korea could be seen as one of China's political and economic measures to punish North Korea," Qian said. But he stressed that the original intention of China's measures was to let its neighbor know its provocative behavior was unacceptable in the region, rather than destroying it.
Last year, China joined the US to push through a slate of UN economic sanctions against North Korea after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test. China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and main source of food, arms and energy.
Moreover, under the background of globalization and market economy, China could resort to "economic sanctions" to reach its global strategic goals because of its current status as the world's second-largest economy, Qian noted.
Trade has long been a trump card that China uses to deal with security issues. After the announcement of a land swap agreement between Lotte Group and South Korea's defense ministry to facilitate the deployment of the THAAD system in February, many Chinese companies stopped offering products and services associated with South Korea and many Chinese consumers boycotted products imported from South Korea, taking a toll on the peninsular country's economy.
So far, the presidential candidates of the Democratic Party, South Korea's largest opposition party, have voiced objection to the deployment of the THAAD system and called for a thorough reflection on the security policy under Park Geun-hye's presidency.
Strategic containment by US
Some experts say that the triple alliance of the US, South Korea and Japan is obviously shifting its focus to China and Russia from North Korea, with the US aiming to curb China's fast-growing political and economic influence in the region.
Qian said that the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea could be seen as a "major step" taken by the US to contain China and Russia in the region.
"The deployment of the THAAD system symbolizes the preliminary formation of a mini North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in East Asia. So, (facing the challenge), China and Russia are bound to strengthen their strategic cooperation and adjust their military deployment and policies toward East Asia. An arms race would be unavoidable," Qian said, adding that China may consider military operation as a tool to safeguard its strategically important interests in the future amid its intensified military buildup.
Recently, Russia's foreign ministry said that Russia and China would enhance strategic communication in the face of possible threats caused by the imbalance of power in East Asia and the deployment of the THAAD system.
However, Zheng Jiyong, director at the Center for Korean Studies of Fudan University, believed that the tensions on the Korean Peninsula would not develop into a war, as the US adopts a policy aimed at maintaining a certain intensity of chaos on the peninsula while trying to avoid a war.
"The US' policy toward the Korean Peninsula aims to bring together South Korea and Japan to contain China," Zheng said.