April 8 (Bloomberg) -- China should use its economic and political clout to calm tensions with North Korea and help guard against an accidental escalation into armed conflict, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said.
“China does hold the key to this problem,” McCain said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “China can cut off their economy if they want to.”
McCain and New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer joined in calling for a tougher Chinese response to threats of nuclear war by North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, as Obama administration officials said the U.S. delayed a scheduled missile test to keep from exacerbating tensions.
“The Chinese hold a lot of the cards here,” Schumer said on the CBS program. “They’re by nature cautious, but they’re carrying it to an extreme.” China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and closest ally.
“It’s about time they stepped up to the plate,” Schumer said.
While the U.S. and South Korea would win, an all-out military conflict with North Korea “would be a catastrophe of enormous proportions,” McCain said. “More than once, wars have started by accident.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel postponed an April 9 test of a Minuteman III intercontinental missile from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, according to a Defense Department official who asked not to be identified. The test probably will occur next month, the official said.
U.S. officials were concerned Kim might misinterpret a Minuteman test as a sign the U.S. and South Korea were preparing a pre-emptive attack to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of having access to classified intelligence.
In calibrating its response to Kim, the U.S. has little or no insight into the Communist leader’s thinking and isn’t even certain of his age, the official said.
“With Kim Jong Un being a new leader, there’s an unknown there about why he’s doing this and what does it really mean,” U.S. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno said yesterday on Fox News. “We take it very seriously.”
U.S. Army General James Thurman, who commands 28,000 troops in South Korea, postponed appearances scheduled for this week before congressional committees. Thurman will remain in Seoul “as a prudent measure,” according to a statement from Colonel Amy Hannah, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Korea.
Without mentioning North Korea specifically, Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday warned against destabilization.
“No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” Xi said in a speech at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan. “While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.”
Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, described the speech as “unprecedented” for Xi, who is the country’s top political and military leader.
“It suggests to me, as I’ve watched, the ratcheting up of frustration among Chinese leaders,” Huntsman said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “They’ve probably hit the 212-degree boiling point as it relates to North Korea.”
China has advocated talks to ease tensions that escalated after North Korea detonated a nuclear device in February in defiance of tightened United Nations sanctions.
South Korea’s benchmark Kospi stock index slid 3.9 percent last week, the biggest weekly decline since May, and the won fell to a seven-month low.
While China doesn’t want to see an armed conflict that could send refugees flooding toward its border, reluctance to be seen turning against a longtime friend may limit its cooperation with the U.S. in pressuring North Korea, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have access to classified intelligence on the situation.
In addition, Kim may not buckle even if the Chinese do apply some pressure, the officials said. Kim’s grandfather, they said, ignored the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s efforts in the 1980s to promote economic reforms similar to those he was promoting in China.
“They certainly don’t want the refugees,” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said today on “Face the Nation.” China, which has an 880-mile (1,416-kilometer) border with North Korea, may need to be persuaded that the U.S. and South Korea “have no hostile intent” requiring Kim’s forces to act as a buffer, she said.
“We have to be really careful not to have this escalate, which is why the diplomatic aspects of it are so important,” Albright said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Asia later this week for meetings with leaders from South Korea, China, and Japan.
North Korea last week told countries including Russia and the U.K. to consider evacuating their embassies from the capital, warning that they can’t be protected. North Korea told South Korean companies in the jointly run Gaeseong industrial complex to leave by April 10.
While China and the U.S. last month agreed on tougher UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear test, American officials have traveled to Beijing to seek commitments on implementation.
“Clearly, with the border that they have, with the economic relationship that they have, they can do more,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in an April 5 interview on MSNBC.
To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Lorraine Woellert in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com