- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2016

China’s top diplomat said Thursday Beijing has “legitimate national security” concerns over the potential deployment of an advanced U.S. missile shield to South Korea in response to growing nuclear provocations from North Korea — but Chinese leaders also respect that it will be up to Seoul to “make a final decision” on the matter.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the comments in Washington on Thursday a day after he and Secretary of State John F. Kerry reached an agreement on a U.N. Security Council resolution to expand international sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent nuclear test.

It was unclear whether Beijing, Pyongyang’s main economic partner and ally, had agreed to cut critical coal and other mineral imports from North Korea, but the new resolution would significantly tighten international scrutiny of all goods flowing in and out of the so-called Hermit Kingdom.

The developments follow weeks of behind-the-scenes pressure on China from Obama administration officials, who have criticized Beijing for failing to pressure North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, into abandoning his nuclear and military provocations.

Mr. Wang, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, defended China’s handling of the situation on Thursday, but suggested that Beijing is engaged in some real soul-searching over how to deal with its smaller, isolated neighbor.

The Chinese foreign minister’s comments on missile defense were a departure from Beijing’s aggressive resistance to the installation of the U.S. military’s so-called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, noting that the missile shield would extend into parts of China.

“We believe China’s legitimate security concerns must be taken into account, and a convincing explanation must be provided to China,” Mr. Wang said, while conceding South Korea had the right to make its own decisions. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

His remarks came a day after South Korean officials warned Beijing not to try and bully Seoul out of accepting the missile system. “This is a matter we will decide upon according to our own security and national interests,” Jung Youn-kuk, a spokesman for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, said on Wednesday. “The Chinese had better recognize that.”

The talk of THAAD has also drawn the ire of Russia, where officials say it would be an unnecessarily aggressive U.S. military move in North Asia.

Mr. Kerry has tread carefully on the issue, but defended the discussions given the threat from the North.

“We have made it very clear that we are not hungry or anxious or looking for an opportunity to be able to deploy THAAD,” Mr. Kerry said.

But he quickly added, “THAAD is a purely defensive mechanism. It’s not an offensive weapon [and] doesn’t have offensive capability.”

Chinese state media outlets have carried articles during recent years accusing Washington of stoking tensions with North Korea purely to create a pretext for expanding America’s military footprint in the region. Some 30,000 U.S. troops are presently stationed in South Korea and roughly 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s active assets deployed in the Pacific theater.

Chinese officials have for years warned that a South Korean embrace of THAAD could damage the growing economic and diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing.

But on Wednesday Mr. Wang suggested Chinese leaders may be willing to accept THAAD’s deployment if Washington can clearly convince them the missile shield will not threaten China’s own national security.

South China Sea tensions

The THAAD back-and-forth has played out this week as Mr. Kerry and Mr. Wang sparred on another front — the South China Sea and Beijing’s recent military muscle-flexing in sovereignty disputes with smaller nations in the region.

China has conducted a massive program of land reclamation in the past two years in the sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told Congress this week that China has constructed more than 3,000 acres of artificial land there in little more than two years.

At CSIS Mr. Wang accused the Philippines, a key U.S. ally in the region that has contested China’s claims, of “political provocation” in seeking international arbitration over territorial claims in the waterway, one of the most heavily trafficked on the planet and a key conduit for world trade.

The decision by Philippine leaders to lodge a case with an international tribunal in The Hague was “irresponsible to the Filipino people and the future of the Philippines,” Mr. Wang said, shutting the door on bilateral discussions.

“We are neighbors just separated by a narrow body of water,” Mr. Wang said. “We want to contribute to the Philippines’ economic development.”

At the United Nations Thursday, the draft circulated by U.S. diplomats calls for member nations to begin conducting mandatory searches of all cargo passing through their territory to or from North Korea to look for goods that might be in violation of the existing U.N. arms embargo.

If passed by the Security Council — U.S. officials said they hope for a vote by Saturday — the new resolution would close a loophole in the existing sanctions, which only require searches of ships where there are suspicions that there was illicit cargo on board.

There would also be a new ban on the transfer to North Korea of any item that could contribute to strengthening the North Korean armed forces, such as trucks that could be modified for military purposes.

Other proposed measures include a ban on all supplies of aviation and rocket fuel to North Korea, a requirement for states to expel North Korean diplomats engaging in illicit activities and blacklisting 17 North Korean individuals and 12 entities, including the National Aerospace Development Agency, the body responsible for February’s rocket launch.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters the new measures, if approved, would be “the strongest set of sanctions imposed by the Security Council in more than two decades.”

— This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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