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Experts: China Finds Threat in Latest Move By US-South Korea Alliance 

FILE - President Joe Biden shakes hands with South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 26, 2023.
FILE - President Joe Biden shakes hands with South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 26, 2023.

A declaration of intent by Washington and Seoul, South Korea, to boost nuclear deterrence against North Korea has prompted Beijing to lodge criticism that shows China views a stronger alliance as a threat to its sphere of influence, experts say.

“We noted the relevant content of the Washington Declaration,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA’s Korean Service on Tuesday.

“The U.S. behavior is a result of its Cold War mentality. What the U.S. has done stokes bloc confrontation, undermines the nuclear nonproliferation system and hurts the strategic interest of other countries,” he said.

In the Washington Declaration that U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol issued April 26, the allies agreed to widen Seoul’s say in U.S. nuclear planning through a newly created body called the Nuclear Consultative Group and to deploy a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine regularly to South Korea.

The measures were issued in response to “unprecedented and growing” threats from North Korea,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has repeatedly threatened to attack South Korea and the U.S., which Pyongyang considers its enemies. His words were emphasized by a record number of missile launches last year, at a pace that continues. Since last year, activities at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site show it is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time.

“Beijing is predisposed to see any steps to strengthen U.S. and allied defense posture as secretly aimed against China,” said Daniel Russel, who was the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration.

“Beijing chooses to ignore the massive expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal or its increasingly threatening language and instead interpreted the strengthening of extended deterrence as an anti-China move,” said Russel, now vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

In an article citing Chinese experts published on April 29, China’s state-run Global Times said the joint declaration reflected Yoon’s “overwhelming pro-U.S. policy” that has “lost balance” and “appear[s] more hostile to its three important neighbors,” including North Korea and Russia.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a press briefing on Monday that China should not “overreact” to the joint agreement.

Opposition to alliance

Patricia Kim, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said, “Beijing’s critical response to the measures announced during President Yoon’s visit to the United States is rooted in China’s tendency to see any strengthening of the U.S.-ROK alliance as directed toward itself, when in reality, they are intended to address South Korea’s fundamental growing threat posed by North Korea.”

After his state visit to Washington, Yoon rejected Chinese criticisms. He told a group of more than 150 reporters at a press luncheon in the Yongsan presidential compound in Seoul that the Chinese should help reduce threats from North Korea by enforcing sanctions.

“If they want to take issue with us and criticize us for adopting the Washington Declaration and upgrading our security cooperation to one that is nuclear based, they should reduce the nuclear threat” of North Korea, “or at least abide by international law and stick to U.N. Security Council sanctions,” Yoon said on Tuesday.

Although China helped to pass sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017 as a permanent member of the Security Council, it has blocked the international body from passing new resolutions condemning recent launches.

Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asia affairs at the White House’s National Security Council during the administration of George W. Bush, said “the Washington Declaration merely confirmed for Beijing that President Yoon is going to take a tough stance toward North Korea and a tough stance toward China.”


Wilder said South Korean leaders "have always been careful to avoid entanglement in U.S. policy on Taiwan,” but “President Yoon is the first South Korean president to have involved himself directly on the Taiwan issue, and from the Chinese point of view, that is totally unacceptable.”

Before Yoon’s trip to Washington, he said in an interview with Reuters released on April 19 that tensions surrounding Taiwan resulted from “attempts to change the status quo by force,” and the matter is “not simply an issue between China and Taiwan” but “a global” one.

In the joint statement that Biden and Yoon issued following their summit, they stressed “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and “strongly opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific.”

Beijing views the self-governing island of Taiwan as its own territory that must be reunited with mainland China.

"This is a broader geopolitical issue for Beijing that [it’s] watching as a bunch of countries on China’s periphery align more closely with the United States,” said Zack Cooper, former special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy at the U.S. Defense Department.

“It’s South Korea [and] Japan. It’s India, Taiwan and the Philippines. As these Chinese neighbors are pushing back against Beijing, the Chinese leadership is feeling more isolated. That’s creating this frustration in China” and causing it to “lash out in very critical ways,” said Cooper, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

China’s increasing military aggression in the Indo-Pacific has led the U.S. and its allies and partners to strengthen their ways to defend Taiwan and to maintain freedom of navigation in the region.

“From China’s point of view, President Yoon is expanding South Korea’s military reach — or seems to be — into the Taiwan Strait situation,” Wilder said.

Jiha Ham contributed to this report.