BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a peaceful resolution of rising tension on the Korean peninsula in a telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, as a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group steamed toward the region.
Trump said on Twitter that his call with Xi, just days after they met in the United States for the first time, was a “very good” discussion of the “menace of North Korea”.
He praised China at a later news conference for sending coal ships back to North Korea under U.N. sanctions and said he thought Xi wanted to help.
“We’ll see whether or not he does,” Trump said. “Otherwise we’re just going to go it alone; that’ll be all right too, but going it alone means going with lots of other nations.”
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The Trump-Xi call came as an influential state-run Chinese newspaper warned that the Korean peninsula was the closest it has been to a “military clash” since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
The call underscored a sense of urgency given concerns that North Korea could soon conduct a sixth nuclear test or more missile launches in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and over Trump’s threat of unilateral action to solve the problem.
At the weekend, Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group to head to the Korean peninsula in a show of force aimed at deterring North Korea.
Pyongyang warned on Tuesday of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression. It remains technically at war with the United States and South Korea after the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and regularly threatens to destroy both countries.
Trump pressed Xi to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program when the two leaders held their first face-to-face meeting in Florida last week. He said on Tuesday that North Korea was “looking for trouble” and Washington would “solve the problem” with or without China’s help.
In spite of the rhetoric, U.S. officials have stressed that stronger sanctions are the most likely U.S. course to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
At the same time Washington has said all options, including military ones, are on the table and that a U.S. strike last week against Syria should serve as a warning to Pyongyang.
Xi stressed in the call with Trump that China was “committed to the target of denuclearization on the peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula, and advocates resolving problems through peaceful means”, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who said Trump had initiated the call, urged everyone to lower the tension.
“We hope that the relevant parties do not adopt irresponsible actions. Under the current circumstances, this is very dangerous,” Lu told reporters at a regular press briefing.
China’s Global Times newspaper said North Korea should halt any plan for nuclear and missile activities “for its own security”, while noting Trump’s recent decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield in response to a deadly gas attack last week.
“Not only is Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria, but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises,” it said in an editorial.
“The U.S. is making up its mind to stop the North from conducting further nuclear tests. It doesn’t plan to co-exist with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang,” it said. “Pyongyang should avoid making mistakes at this time.”
While widely read in China and run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, the Global Times does not represent government policy.
The paper said if North Korea made another provocative move, “Chinese society” might be willing to back unprecedented sanctions, “such as restricting oil imports”.
North Korea is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States and officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, have indicated an intercontinental ballistic missile test or something similar could be coming.
Saturday will be the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding president Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader. North Korea launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite on April 13, 2012, to mark the centenary of his birth.
In Pyongyang residents thronged boulevards on a sunny spring morning, some practicing for a parade to be held at the weekend, with no visible sign of the tension.
“So long as we are with our supreme leader Marshall Kim Jong Un we are not afraid of anything,” a woman who gave her name as Ri Hyon Sim told Reuters journalists, who were escorted by North Korean officials.
Earlier on Wednesday, two sources in Tokyo said Japan’s navy planned exercises with the Carl Vinson carrier group in a joint show of force that could involve helicopter landings on each other’s ships, as well as communication drills.
A senior Japanese diplomat said it appeared Washington was seeking to press North Korea to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis.
“If you consider overall things such as the fact that the U.S. government has not put out warnings to its citizens in South Korea, I think the risk at this point is not high,” said the diplomat, who declined to be identified.
China’s Defence Ministry, meanwhile, dismissed foreign media reports about a build-up of Chinese troops on its border with North Korea as “pure fabrication”.
GRAPHIC: The Carl Vinson strike group tmsnrt.rs/2p1yGTQ
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul, Sue-Lin Wong and Natalie Thomas in Pyongyang, Nobuhiro Kubo, Tim Kelly in Tokyo, Philip Wen in Beijing and Jeff Mason and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish