On Wednesday, less than a day after the US military revealed the controversial missile defense system had arrived in South Korea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the United States and North Korea are heading for a collision like “two accelerating trains with neither side willing to give way.” Pictures released by the United States showed the first pieces of the ballistic missile defense technology being unloaded at Osan Air Base in South Korea Monday night.
Tensions in East Asia have skyrocketed considerably this week since North Korea’s launch of four ballistic missiles, and the arrival of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) in South Korea, which China vehemently opposes.
Wang said it is currently “the biggest issue affecting China-South Korean relations.”
State news agency Xinhua tweeted the statement delivered by Wang, who said that North Korea’s missile deployment could kick off an “arms race” in the region. “More missile shields of one side inevitably bring more nuclear missiles of the opposing side that can break through the missile shield.”
Chinese FM: THAAD deployment in South Korea "a wrong choice", undermines China's strategic security pic.twitter.com/Q9TPXCxyO0
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 8, 2017
Wang advised that the US and South Korea could ease tensions in the region by suspending annual joint military exercises that antagonize North Korea, in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear program. He suggested China’s role was to act as an early warning signal to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision on the Korea peninsula.
“(China’s) priority now is to flash the red light and to apply brakes on both trains,” he said.
Next week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to Beijing for talks, which are likely to include how to defuse the situation in North Korea.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, said he was “very skeptical” of Wang’s hopes for brokering a potential deal between North Korea and the US.
“To me, it speaks of a more tactical (statement) — China’s lost the initiative in the Korean Peninsula somewhat, not so much due to a proactive US policy to the region … but in the way that North Korea has been throwing its weight around,” he said.
Graham said the US would be skeptical as to how much control China actually had over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
“If China was truly opposed to the nuclear program of North Korea … why wouldn’t it have acted in its own faith, rather than linking it to a set of (military) exercises?” he said.
According to the US military, the missile defense system is intended to counter North Korean aggression, but China is strongly opposing its deployment.
“Beijing believes the missile system could be used to spy on their activities, rather than monitoring incoming North Korean missiles,” said Mark Tokola of the Korean Economic Institute of America.