China needs to start preparing for a possible crisis if tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme escalate into a military conflict, experts have warned.
The stark assessment comes as hopes of a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s missile tests remain bleak and fears increase of a military showdown between Washington and Pyongyang.
Possible threats in a worst-case scenario involve nuclear contamination near China’s border with North Korea and the influx of thousands of refugees if a crisis breaks out.
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Beijing has routinely kept quiet about its preparedness for such a scenario on the Korean peninsula amid reports of China boosting security along its North Korean border.
“Under the mounting pressure from the US and UN sanctions, I’m very pessimistic about prospects in the peninsula,” said Zhang Tuosheng, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies. “China needs to have en emergency plan to deal with the influx of refugees and possible nuclear contamination,” he said.
US President Donald Trump has spoken of dire consequences for North Korea amid its escalating missile tests. China’s UN Ambassador, Liu Jieyi, warned earlier this month that if world powers failed to find a way to ease tensions with North Korea things could get out of control and lead to disastrous results.
James Reilly, a scholar of Chinese foreign policy at the University of Sydney, said there was an increased anxiety among many people in China about what the US was considering to rein in North Korea.
Beijing also probably felt some frustration with the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea, he added.
Experts have suggested China should strengthen its military presence along the North Korean border to avoid a full-fledged crisis if there is a sudden conflict.
Sun Xingjie, a North Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University, warned that the border must be made secure.
“To ensure the safety of the Chinese border citizens, Beijing’s security protection along the border should be more proactive,” said Sun.
Reilly said it would not be surprising if China bolstered its border defences in the current tense climate.
US and South Korean media outlets reported a large-scale mobilisation of troops along the North Korean border in mid-April, but a Chinese defence ministry spokesman denied the reports.
Relations between North Korea and China, Pyongyang’s top diplomatic and economic backer, have hit a historical low this year after a series of missile tests.
China slapped a sweeping ban on coal imports from North Korea in February, one of the regime’s biggest sources of revenue.
North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship also has strained ties between Beijing and Washington as the Trump administration vents its frustration over Beijing’s inability to rein in its Communist neighbour.