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US official: With eye on North Korea, China puts bombers on ‘high alert’

By Ryan Browne and Elise Labott, CNN

Chinese air force land-attack, cruise-missile-capable bombers were put “on high alert” on Wednesday as the US sees evidence that the Chinese military is preparing to respond to a potential situation in North Korea, a US defense official tells CNN.

The official said the US has also seen an extraordinary number of Chinese military aircraft being brought up to full readiness through intensified maintenance.
These recent steps by the Chinese are assessed as part of an effort to “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency,” the official said.

Such a contingency could include the risk of an armed conflict breaking out as tensions on the peninsula have increased in the wake of multiple North Korean missile tests.

The US and Pyongyang have ratcheted up their rhetoric, with the latter’s state media warning Thursday that a pre-emptive strike by North Korea would result in the US and South Korea being “completely destroyed in an instant.”

Beijing has long been concerned about potential instability in North Korea should the regime in Pyongyang collapse, fearing both an influx of refugees and the potential of reunification under a South Korean government closely allied to the US.

China is also opposed to the US military’s presence in South Korea, protesting the recent US and South Korea decision to begin deploying elements of the THAAD missile defense system.

Given the close economic links between North Korea and China, US military officials have said that Beijing is critical to solving the North Korean situation, with President Donald Trump recently commending Chinese President Xi Jinping for Chinese efforts to curb Pyongyang’s activities.

Several senior administration officials told CNN Thursday that China is now the focus of the Trump administration’s North Korea strategy.

“Nobody thinks the Chinese are going to press North Korea militarily or bring the regime to its knees, but the strategy looks to China to find a political solution more than anything else,” one senior administration official said.

The officials said Trump’s approach is based on a careful review of past US efforts to deal with North Korea, noting that during the analysis of failed negotiating efforts with the long-reigning Kim family, one thing became abundantly clear: “China has never exerted maximum leverage on the Kim regime.”

It’s estimated that some 85% of North Korea’s economic trade is dependent on China. Given those close economic links, US military officials have said that Beijing is critical to solving the North Korean situation.

And China appeared to reciprocate Wednesday, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying Beijing was “gravely concerned” about North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile activities while simultaneously praising Washington’s approach to the issue.

“American officials did make some positive and constructive remarks … such as using whatever peaceful means possible to resolve the (Korean) Peninsula nuclear issue. This represents a general direction that we believe is correct and should be adhered to,” Lu said.

But one senior administration official cautioned that the China-centric strategy was still in an early stage, and that “there are many more stages to go.”

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