China’s Premier on N. Korea: ‘No one wants to see chaos on his doorstep’

China’s second highest-ranking official used his once-yearly press conference to underline the importance of good relations with the US.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang discussed North Korea, the South China Sea and trade in a highly orchestrated and scripted ceremony in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Conflict on the Korean peninsula “would only bring harm to all parties involved,” Li said, ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to the region which starts Wednesday.

“We hope that all parties can work together (to reduce tensions)” he added. “It’s just common sense that no one wants to see chaos on his doorstep.”

China is a key ally of North Korea, and has long called for more dialogue between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington. Last week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program and warned that “the two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other.”

That stern warning came after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles and the US deployed the first components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system (THAAD) in South Korea.

china's role with north korea rivers pkg_00015608

Can China help the US deal with North Korea?

Rare access

Li’s press conference, held at the culmination of the National People’s Congress, an annual gathering of China’s rubberstamp parliament, is one of the only times the press is able to question the country’s leaders.

Of the hundreds of journalists and other members of the media gathered in the hall, only around half a dozen were able to ask questions. Topics were screened in advance.

Several questions were asked by members of the foreign press, including CNN, Bloomberg and Japanese newspaper Nikkei.

Li praised many of the reporters for getting to the hall up to “two hours in advance,” and, as he has done in previous years, cheerily interrogated non-Chinese reporters on where they learned to speak Mandarin.

No trade war

The US-China relationship was a key theme of Li’s press conference. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to meet his US counterpart Donald Trump for a summit in Florida next month.

During the presidential campaign, Trump was highly critical of China, particularly on matters of trade. Post-election, Trump also raised Beijing’s concerns when he seemed to question Washington’s policy on Taiwan, though he later walked that back during a call with Xi.

Li said he was “optimistic” about the future of China-US relations, and added that Beijing does not “want to see a trade war break out.”

China has been seen as something of a standard-bearer for free trade and globalization since Trump’s election saw Washington take a more skeptical view.

“China itself has benefited from globalization and China will remain committed to opening up,” Li said. “The truth is to shut our door to the outside world would not help China do its own things well.”

US starts 'routine' patrols in South China Sea

US starts ‘routine’ patrols in South China Sea

South China Sea

Another key point of contention for China-US ties is the South China Sea, on which Secretary of State Tillerson took a hard line during his confirmation hearings.

“Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to,” he said in January.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also not going to be allowed.”

Li acknowledged that tensions in the region were running high, adding that “China does not want to see any party compelled to choose sides under the influence of a Cold War mentality.”

He said that “substantive progress” has been made in regard to a code of conduct for disputes in the South China Sea and called for greater dialog “through the parties directly concerned.”

Beijing has always favored bilateral discussions between the parties involved — where China’s economic and military might tends to outweigh all others — rather than multinational summits. 

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