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China Remains Reserved As U.S. Trades Threats With North Korea


President Trump, after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley this evening announced he would be speaking with president Xi tonight.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've been working very closely with China and with other countries. And that phone call will take place tonight.

CORNISH: In China, a state-owned newspaper known for its harsh rhetoric today warned North Korea that China would stay neutral if the North attacked the U.S. first. But China is somewhat bound by a half-century-old treaty to act on North Korea's behalf if that country faces a military confrontation.

Now, here to talk more about how the region's superpower is viewing all this is Yun Sun. She's a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. Welcome to the program.

YUN SUN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, China's typically responded to escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea with calls for calm. What's their reaction been this week?

YUN: This week is that not much different. Well, because of the sanction resolutions that was just passed by the U.N. Security Council last Saturday, China feels that it has, in a way, fulfilled its obligation to support the sanction resolution and to show North Korea that its missile test activity is not acceptable for the international community. China feels that, well, we have seen this type of rhetoric from North Korea constantly in the past several years, so this is nothing new. And I think China is not yet convinced that this type of verbal escalation of war is going to lead to a real nuclear war in the immediate future.

CORNISH: But what do you make of the suggestion that China might be neutral, effectively leaving North Korea on its own if it were to strike the U.S. first?

YUN: Well, to be clear, China does not like the provocative behaviors that North Korea is pushing. First of all, the provocation generates a lot of pressure for China to take actions to punish North Korea in order to stop this type of provocation. And China has been under constant pressure from the international community to reign in the North Korean provocation. So China would like to be able to say that, we are a responsible stakeholder and that we are also sending the signals to North Korea that their wrong behaviors or their provocative behaviors are not being tolerated.

So I think by saying that, the Global Times, the Chinese newspaper, is trying to do two things. One is to show the international community that we, China, is taking actions. And on the other hand, China also wants to send a warning to North Korea that if you continue your provocation, there might be a day that we are not going to come to your rescue.

CORNISH: Are there limits to that 1961 treaty of friendship between China and North Korea?

YUN: Looking at the language, there's no such limit.

CORNISH: Given all this kind of verbal sparring back and forth between U.S. and North Korean leaders, can China be seen as, for lack of a better term, the grownup in the room?

YUN: I think China very much would like to be the adult in the room, and that - the proposal that China has put forth and has been preaching both Americans and North Koreans about is that idea of double suspensions, a double freeze. So in exchange for the freeze of the nuclear activities, U.S. and South Korea should freeze their military exercise. So that's China's adult, supervisory advice to - in terms of how to de-escalate the tension currently.

But unfortunately, that proposal is not being actively considered by either United States or North Korea because both countries do not have trust in the other side being sincere about delivering the freeze. And the double freeze proposal does not necessarily fit the security outlook or the strategic design of either country.

CORNISH: In the end, what are the interests, then, that China is balancing? It sounds like you're saying they're not just concerned about what North Korea is doing but whether it would further draw the U.S. into their region.

YUN: Yes. What the Chinese are trying to balance is, on one hand, they do want to pursue the denuclearization of North Korea. But they are also very interested in maintaining the stability within North Korea. So that rules out the option of regime change or a unification of the Korean Peninsula through military means because that would inevitably introduce a U.S. presence into the north of the 38th parallel, at least in the Chinese perception.

CORNISH: Yun Sun is a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. Thank you for explaining it to us.

YUN: Thank you so much, Audie, for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.