China must help prevent an Asia-Pacific nuclear arms race
China’s response to North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test and the threat it poses to the wider region augurs badly for the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, beginning today in New York. A Chinese spokesman, while noting Beijing’s support for expanded UN sanctions and condemning the test, disingenuously insisted that the escalating crisis involved only North Korea and Washington — ignoring the reality that it is a global problem demanding an international response. The provocative trajectory of Friday’s test of a North Korean Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile, directly over Japan’s Hokkaido island and into the Pacific, 3700km from its launch site, showed the potential for wider conflict.
As the one country with the leverage to compel Pyongyang to change course, China’s dissembling is dangerous. Beijing should heed US national security adviser H.R. McMaster’s insistence that the crisis is one between North Korea and the world, not only the US.
Beijing would also be unwise to overlook the way Japan and South Korea are dramatically stepping up their missile defence systems amid indications North Korea’s nuclear advances could spark the nuclearisation of the region. Japan is probably capable of developing its own nuclear bomb within six months, while South Korea could be tempted to go down the same road. Even Vietnam is building up its weapons systems. A major arms race in the Asia Pacific is not in China’s interests. Nor are Kim Jong-un’s threats to “envelop” Guam with missiles and his promise to launch “a nuclear counter-attack the US cannot cope with”. Beijing would also be foolish to ignore the North Korean despot’s scathing new reference to “big power chauvinists”, a term he uses to heap scorn on China.
If the UN General Assembly is to make headway in confronting one of the gravest crises to face the world in decades, it must ensure international pressure on Pyongyang is redoubled. China’s interest lies in ensuring this happens and that war does not erupt on the Korean peninsula.