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Jia Qingguo, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, says a chance of the U.S. striking North Korea first is increasing. (Photo by Oki Nagai)
Looking ahead 2018

Risk of US-North Korea clash increasing: China adviser Jia

China, South Korea, US yet to forge coordinated plan for crisis and aftermath

BEIJING -- A moment of crisis on the Korean Peninsula is fast approaching, according to Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and an expert on Sino-U.S. relations. Jia, who also influences Chinese foreign policy, told The Nikkei that tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are reaching a fever pitch. But he also suggested the possibility of direct dialogue between the two countries. 

Q: Chinese President Xi Jinping, who began his second term as the country's leader in October, is calling for building a new type of international relations.

A: This is basically the same as the concept of forging a "new type of great power relations" [as China proposed to former U.S. President Barack Obama]. As long as nuclear weapons exist, if great powers jostle for influence or power, it is unlikely that any solution will be found for their conflict. To promote mutually beneficial cooperation among great powers, the most fundamental principle is respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The idea is that cooperation will allow these nations to pursue a leading role [in the international community].

Q: If China boosts its naval presence in the South China Sea and adjacent waters, won't it provoke conflicts with the global community, especially the U.S.?

A: Since a long time ago, our country has asserted sovereignty over the islands in the South and East China seas. Our claims to these oceans are nothing new. The one thing different from before is that China has become much more powerful. In China, there are growing calls for the government to take more active measures to protect national interests. Of course, China's territorial disputes with its neighbors should be settled in a peaceful manner.

Q: In September, you proposed China to improve its strategic communications and cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea to prepare for an emergency on the Korean Peninsula. This proposal has elicited strong responses.

A: The chance of a full-blown crisis on the Korean Peninsula has increased dramatically. Here are four possible scenarios that could play out during an escalating conflict over North Korea -- an accident at a North Korean nuclear test site; collapse of the country's economy due to tougher sanctions imposed by the U.N.; a U.S. preventive strike on North Korea; and political turmoil breaking out in the North.

China, South Korea and the U.S. have so far devised their own individual plans to deal with the crisis on the peninsula, and have stopped short of forging a coordinated, strategic approach. But once a crisis actually occurs, there is no denying that accidental military clashes may break out between these countries. There is an urgent need for all countries concerned to discuss concrete contingency plans, including an influx of North Korean refugees.

Q: Do you think the U.S. may take military action against Pyongyang?

A: The probability of a U.S. military attack is now quite high. Based on information gathered from various sources, it seems that the country is seriously considering a pre-emptive action against the North.

Q: Washington has urged Beijing to cut off petroleum supplies to Pyongyang.

A: The Chinese government is very cautious about imposing a complete oil embargo on North Korea because this step could rather trigger a crisis. Even so, Beijing cannot completely omit the possibility of it. If North Korea continues to ignore the will of the international community to stop nuclear and missile development, Beijing will be forced to put in more effort [to punish Pyongyang].

Q: Is there any chance of bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table with Washington?

A: Certainly, there is. The important issue is whether the two sides would be able to reach any agreement, but I believe it is no easy task. As North Korea doesn't trust any country, including China, the reclusive state believes that there's no way to defend itself, unless it continues its development of nuclear weapons.

Q: There are signs that China-Japan relations are gradually improving.

A: Although China-Japan ties have shown some improvement, it cannot be said that their relations have gotten back on a normal track. Despite the fact that there are various areas of cooperation between the two nations, bilateral ties have often been strained by territorial and historical issues -- a situation that has caused a long-running vicious cycle of worsening relations between them.

Q: Japan's cooperation with China in the nation's massive Belt and Road Initiative could serve to enhance bilateral ties. What is your take on it?

A: Given the growing demand for infrastructure in many countries around the world, Chine needs financial and technical assistance from other countries, as well as other supports like project management. This initiative will provide good opportunities to promote China-Japan collaboration. If the two countries only remain locked in competitive struggle, it will be a great loss to each other.

Jia Qingguo is Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and a member of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference. He earned a Ph.D from Cornell University and was a research fellow at Brookings Institution. Jia visited North Korea after Kim Jong Un became leader.   

Interviewed by Tetsushi Takahashi, China bureau chief.

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