Why Trump's North Korea threat is the last thing China needs

Story highlights

  • US and North Korea tensions come at the worst time for China, an analyst says
  • There's no indications as yet whose side they would take if war were declared

Hong Kong (CNN)US President Donald Trump's threats of "fire and fury" against North Korea couldn't come at a worse time for China.

One of North Korea's closest diplomatic partners, China has long attempted to avoid conflict between Washington and Pyongyang, calling for both sides to make concessions.
In a statement Wednesday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said parties should "avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions."
    "China calls on all relevant sides to uphold the broad direction of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through political means," the statement said.
    Tong Zhao, associate at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told CNN the recent tensions come at a time when Beijing is keen to promote stability ahead of the 19th Communist Party National Congress, China's twice a decade handover of power scheduled for later this year.
    "China has other regional crises as well, the border dispute with India, the South China Sea ... it's really bad timing for another real crisis to emerge in North Korea," Zhao said.
    Speaking at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey Tuesday, the US president said North Korea would face might "like the world has never seen" if it continued to make threats.
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    Within hours of Trump's statement, North Korea issued a statement warning of a possible strike on areas around the US territory of Guam.
    Any armed conflict between the two adversaries would be "the worst case scenario" for China, Zhao added, saying there was no indication yet how Chinese President Xi Jinping would react to any hostilities.

    Military action on Korean Peninsula?

    In recent months, there have been some hints of preparations by China in case the worst should happen and war breaks out in North Korea.
    In July, military and government reports showed the country's northern border region, which includes the 880 mile (1,415 kilometer) North Korean-Chinese border, was being reinforced with extra Chinese troops.
    But Zhao said even China is unsure who it would support in the event of any armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
    "There are too many uncertain variables -- who initiates it? Who bears more responsibility? How will the war affect the economy? Too much uncertainty and I don't think China can give a simple answer about how it will respond," he said.
    Part of the problem is the strict silence imposed on Chinese media and academics by Beijing, according to Zhao, making it harder to discern what discussions are taking place behind closed doors.
    "China has been very secretive about North Korea so it's hard to tell, hard to find those signs," he said.
    A potential conflict between North Korea and the United States isn't the only military threat hanging over China's head.
    An ongoing border dispute between China and India has escalated in recent weeks, with one military officer declaring in July China would preserve its "sovereign territory ... at any cost."
    "It's possible that military conflict could break out with India," Zhao said.

    China seeks calm before congress

    China is determined to present a stable and powerful image in advance of the 19th Party Congress. Held by the country's ruling Communist Party every five years, it's when Beijing unveils the new leadership team for the next half decade.
    For months President Xi Jinping has been carefully preparing the ground for the meeting, where he is expected to solidify his power over China's government.
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    Xi likely to use the event to fill the country's powerful Politburo and Standing Committee with his allies, making the autumn congress effectively a coronation confirming the president as easily the most powerful man in one of the world's most powerful countries.
    But Zhao said an increasingly erratic North Korea is now threatening to overshadow the Communist Party's big day.
    Beijing has maintained a clear and consistent position on North Korea for months, calling on multiple occasions for Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the US and South Korea holding off on military drills.
    Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney's Lowy Institute, says there has been no indication of a change in policy from Beijing.
    "(But) the problem is having essentially bet his credibility on a tweet back in January ... it is hard for Trump to restore it without escalating to a military solution. That obviously would be the latest worry in Beijing," he said.
    But Graham added despite the difficult position China found itself in, there was one silver lining to the North Korean cloud.
    "The sanctions bill which went through the UN recently didn't target Chinese entities directly ... they'll actually be relieved they're not being directly targeted by the US as many have feared," he said.