China urged to boost defence talks with US, Japan, South Korea as trio joins hands on Pyongyang nuclear threat

China should step up defence dialogue with Japan, South Korea and the United States, defence experts have advised, after the two US allies and Washington agreed to boost security ties over North Korean missile and nuclear threats.

While the tripartite move, announced on the sidelines of a Nato summit in Madrid, was unlikely to pose an immediate, serious challenge to Beijing, plans for joint exercises might push the North into more provocative acts, the analysts warned.

The three-way meeting came amid a push towards improving Tokyo-Seoul ties following a change of guard in South Korea, and fears of North Korea carrying out its first nuclear test since 2017.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida asserted the importance of mutual cooperation, citing his “deep concerns” over the possibility of further provocation by North Korea, including nuclear testing.

The North has raised tensions on the Korean peninsula since the start of the year with repeated ballistic missile launches.

“The deterrence capabilities of the Japan-US and US-South Korea alliances need to be upgraded as part of the essential effort to strengthen the trilateral partnership,” he told the meeting hailed as “historic” by the White House.

Should such a nuclear test take place, the response would be at the trilateral level, including joint exercises, Kishida emphasised.

Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military science and technology institute, said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was strong enough to handle any military challenges posed by the tripartite deal, but North Korea might be dismayed at the news.

“China does not need to strongly react to the cooperation among the three nations, but it needs to step up communication with them,” Zhou advised.

“It wouldn’t be too late for China to take action and protest if the military action by the three nations really posed a threat.”

However, a “threat to Beijing will emerge if North Korea conducts a nuclear test [in reaction to the deal],” he warned.

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North Korea now has 20 nuclear warheads at most, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said earlier this month.

Addressing the delegates in Madrid, US President Joe Biden said trilateral cooperation was “essential” to achieve their “shared objective” of complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and a free and open Indo-Pacific – the latter a concept seen as designed to counter China’s rising might in the region.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, said North Korea’s provocations should be met with a “powerful response”, but the three countries should also cooperate closely so that Pyongyang can return to dialogue toward denuclearisation.

Beijing has opposed the US strengthening its military alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, saying Washington-led initiatives, such as the Aukus security grouping with Australia and Britain, would affect regional stability.

China was identified for the first time as a “systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security” in Nato’s new strategic concept – a key document setting out the alliance’s military and security strategy for the next 10 years.

Beijing hit back at the charge, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accusing Nato of creating conflicts.

Cheung Mong, associate professor at the School of International Liberal Studies of Waseda University in Japan, however, questioned how far the cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the US would go, given the disputes between Tokyo and Seoul over territorial and wartime grievances.

Additional reporting by Kyodo

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