The Global Times newspaper is not an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, but in this case its editorial probably does reflect government policy, experts said.
The stern Chinese warning came as government leaders and politicians around the world urged calm after a series of threats and counterthreats by the U.S. and North Korean governments. The brinkmanship has spread jitters and weighed on global financial markets, which were down Friday for a fourth consecutive day.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday called the escalating rhetoric “the wrong answer.” She pledged her country’s support for “any nonmilitary solutions,” telling reporters in Berlin, “I don’t see a military solution to this conflict.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there had been an “overwhelming amount” of “belligerent rhetoric” from Washington and Pyongyang. “The side that is stronger and cleverer” will take the first step to defuse tensions, he said.
China has repeatedly warned both Washington and Pyongyang not to do anything that raises tensions or causes instability on the Korean Peninsula, and it strongly reiterated that message Friday.
“The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is complicated and sensitive,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.
“China hopes that all relevant parties will be cautious in their words and actions, and do things that help to alleviate tensions and enhance mutual trust, rather than walk on the old pathway of taking turns in shows of strength, and upgrading the tensions,” he said.
In an editorial, the Global Times said China should make it clear to both sides that “when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.”
“China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral,” it added. “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
On Tuesday, President Trump threatened to respond to further threats from North Korea by unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Pyongyang in turn said it could strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the Western Pacific with ballistic missiles. In his latest salvos in the war of words, Trump said Friday that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” and that North Korea would “truly regret it” if it attacked Guam.
The saber-rattling has had an impact on world financial markets. Main indexes were down Friday in Frankfurt and Paris, and London’s FTSE 100 touched its lowest level since May. Asian markets also slumped, including South Korea’s KOSPI, dropping 1.8 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average was largely flat after the opening bell.
The Chinese paper’s comments reflect the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, which obliges China to intervene if North Korea is subject to unprovoked aggression — but not necessarily if Pyongyang starts a war. China has been a key ally of North Korea, helping prop up its economy as it has been hit with repeated rounds of international sanctions.
“The key point is in the first half of the sentence: China opposes North Korea testing missiles in the waters around Guam,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
With the situation on the Korean Peninsula sliding dangerously toward the point of no return, Chinese media are starting to declare their positions on any potential war, he said. “Secondly, in a half-official way, China is starting to review and clarify the 1961 treaty.”
China has become deeply frustrated with the regime in Pyongyang and genuinely wants to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But it has always refused to do anything that might destabilize or topple the leadership of a country that has long been both ally and buffer state.
That’s because Beijing does not want to see a unified Korean state allied to the United States on its border. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers died during the 1950-1953 Korean War to prevent that from happening.
So for now, the current uneasy status quo for China still seems better than the alternatives.
That is doubly true ahead of a Communist Party congress in the fall, at which President Xi Jinping wants to project an aura of stability and control as he aims to consolidate his power at the start of a second five-year term.
Nevertheless, experts said debate is underway behind the scenes in China about its support for the North Korean regime.
In an article on the Financial Times China website in May, for example, Tong Zhiwei, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, argued that China should make terminating the 1961 treaty a near-term diplomatic goal, because North Korea, also known as the DPRK, has used it as cover to develop its nuclear program and avoid punishment.
That, he wrote, was not in China’s interests.
“In the past 57 years, the treaty has strongly protected the security of the DPRK and peace on the Korean Peninsula, but it has also been used by the North Korean authorities to protect their international wrongful acts from punishment,” he wrote.
China was not the only country considering its treaty obligations if the U.S.-North Korean rhetoric escalates to war.
In a statement to the radio station 3AW, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Friday that if North Korea launches an attack on the United States, Australia would have America’s back.
“America stands by its allies, including Australia of course, and we stand by the United States,” Turnbull said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “So be very, very clear on that. If there’s an attack on the U.S., the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked.”
ANZUS stands for the Australia New Zealand United States treaty, a collective security pact dating to 1951.
Erickson reported from Washington. Shirley Feng in Beijing and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.