China has no intention of stepping up military ties with North Korea, Chinese military analysts and sources said, dismissing speculation in Taiwan that recent missile launches by the reclusive state had the backing of Beijing.
North Korea fired two rounds of short-range missiles on March 21 and 25, coinciding with an eight-day exercise in the Sea of Japan by a PLA flotilla – led by China’s first 10,000-tonne class Type 055 guided missile destroyer – which began on March 18.
US officials initially described the weapons as ballistic, but later revised their assessment to short-range cruise missiles, which are not covered by UN Security Council resolutions aimed at deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
But the timing of the firings raised concerns, with Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s naval academy in Kaohsiung, suggesting – in an article published last week by Taipei-based United Daily News – they were deliberately arranged to show close military cooperation between North Korea and China, at a time when both countries are at odds with the US.
“The firing range of the missiles launched from South Hamgyong province on March 25 covers almost the whole Sea of Japan, putting the PLA’s Nanchang flotilla under its coverage,” Lu told the South China Morning Post.
“Since it doesn’t make sense that Pyongyang would target the PLA fleet, but Japan, the tests stirred up speculation about whether North Korea had joined with the PLA for military exercises.”
But a military source close to the PLA, as well as defence experts, said Beijing – one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – would not support any missile tests conducted by Pyongyang. The source said Pyongyang had used the timing to give the impression of Beijing’s endorsement.
The firings also coincided with a report by Chinese state news agency Xinhua on March 22 that Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had exchanged messages reaffirming their countries’ relations.
“Pyongyang’s missile stockpile is very limited. They would plot every test carefully and deliberately to maintain high menace … This time, they used the PLA naval fleet as ‘stage property’ to show the US that Beijing stands at its side,” said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“Kim wants to fish in troubled waters amid the confrontations between China and the US. But the PLA prefers to maintain silence, as you dig yourself into a deeper hole when speaking too much.”
The USS Blue Ridge, from the US Seventh Fleet, along with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force, were closely watching the PLA naval drills, delivering pictures of the three Chinese ships just one day after the flotilla entered the Sea of Japan.
Zhou Chengming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang think tank in Beijing, said he expected long-distance blue water exercises by the PLA Navy to become more common, with the addition of more advanced and bigger warships to the world’s second largest naval fleet after the US.
“The Qingdao-based North Sea Fleet will take to the Sea of Japan for routine drills in the future, because both Bohai Bay and the Yellow Sea are too small for their new warships,” Zhou said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said he believed the timing of the March missile firings with the PLA naval exercise had been coincidence.
“Joint anti-ballistic missile tests would need both sides to share part of their parameters, which is impossible, despite the good ties between Beijing and Pyongyang,” he said.