Earlier this week the US Navy conducted a rare three-carrier drill off the east coast of North Korea, in the ocean between the Korean peninsula and Japan. The North Korean government’s was predictably apoplectic, accusing the US of “running amok” in nuclear-armed aggression and threatening “merciless self-defensive” actions if the US were to use its ships to enforce a naval blockade of the rogue state.
This weekend it’s China’s turn to conduct naval exercises, a series of live-fire drills off the opposite west coast of North Korea, in the cramped seas between North Korea and China. Russian media, of course, interpret the drills as an implicit warning to the United States to keep its distance. The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has helpfully offered to mediate.
But are the Chinese naval maneuvers really targeted at the United States and its allies? China’s English-language media have been noticeably silent on the drills, leading instead with a feel-good story about a Chinese hospital ship providing free medical treatments in East Timor. That’s hardly the stuff of posturing and intimidation.
At the same time, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is currently in Beijing for talks with China’s President Xi Jinping. Moon’s trip has received glowing coverage in China, which sees Moon’s as a more friendly face than that of his disgraced predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Former President Park was a strong supporter of the US alliance before her impeachment for corruption last year.
At a time when Chinese state media are lauding Moon for “restoring trust” between China and South Korea, it seems unlikely that the PLA Navy’s exercises in the seas between the two countries are aimed at South Korea and its allies (South Korean and Japanese forces participated in the US three-carrier drill). In fact, Moon has told reporters that he will be talking to Xi about cooperation over North Korea. The two leaders have pledged to work together to reduce tensions on the peninsula.
A letter to Kim
China’s naval activity off the coast of North Korea may not be directed at the United States, South Korea, or even perennial Chinese bugbear Japan. China’s live fire drills might instead be a message to a much closer and much more vulnerable spectator: Mr. Kim Jong-un of Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korea’s “supreme leader” is permanently teetering on the edge of destruction. He may have just executed one of his top generals (as with other North Korean power struggles, nobody on the outside knows for sure). China may be telling Kim to cool it, or even signaling to the North Korean military its readiness to support a quick coup that surgically installs a more businesslike government.
China is reportedly building multiple refugee camps along its porous border with North Korea to be ready in case of a messier transition scenario. China is also quietly tightening the economic screws on the North Korean regime, restricting trade and cancelling flights between Beijing and Pyongyang. North Korea faces the possibility of further scrutiny at a UN Security Council meeting being held today to discuss its recent missile launches. Russia may prevent a resolution against North Korea, but China seems to be much more closely aligned with the Trump administration than with the Kim regime.
China’s top priority in North Korea is to prevent a serious provocation or sudden collapse that might draw US and South Korean ground forces into North Korea. The nightmare scenario for China is the 1990 reunification of Germany, the beginning of a process that ultimately brought NATO forces within 100 miles (160 km.) of St. Petersburg, Russia. China is nervous enough about a US THAAD missile system being based in South Korea. It doesn’t want to see one someday based in the North.
If someone ultimately has to intervene in North Korea, China is almost certain to insist on doing the job itself. China regularly conducts major military exercises near its land border with North Korea, and this weekend’s naval exercises may simply be more of the same. The North Korean border is increasingly treated as a no-go security zone in China. That’s more likely to be a signal to Kim than a signal to Trump — and not a positive one.
China’s top three export markets are the United States, Japan, and South Korea; it is hardly likely to want to disrupt any of these important economic relationships. North Korea, by contrast, was once China’s closest strategic partner but has long since degenerated into little more than a convenient but embarrassing buffer state. The last thing China wants is an American military action that could destabilize the North Korean regime. If that means that China has to move in first, odds are that it will.