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China's anger at North Korea overcomes worry over U.S. stealth flights

Children throw stones into Yalu River, at the river banks, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandon
Children throw stones into Yalu River, at the river banks, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandon

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - A show of force by U.S. stealth jets over the Korean Peninsula after talk of war by Pyongyang has caused only minor concern in China, a measure of Beijing's belief that the North is to blame for the tensions and that hostilities are not imminent.

The presence of U.S. forces in places like South Korea and Japan has long worried Beijing, feeding its fears that it is being surrounded and "contained" by Washington and its allies, especially following the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia.

The flying of B-2 and F-22 stealth jets in joint exercises with South Korea, bringing U.S. military might virtually to China's doorstep, has barely generated a response from Beijing except for a generic call for calm and restraint.

Last month's announcement that the United States would strengthen its anti-missile defenses due to the North's threats also elicited only relatively mild criticism from China.

"All these new actions from the U.S. side are not targeted at China," said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

"There is no possible threat to China."

Another well-connected Chinese military expert, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussing Chinese defense policy, said China believed the U.S. presence in Korea acted as a necessary restraint on troublesome Pyongyang, hence the lack of criticism from Beijing.

Chinese internet sites are resounding with criticism not of the United States but of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is derided as "Fatty Kim" or "Fatty The Third", in reference to his father and grandfather, both previous rulers of the pariah state.

Blame is mostly being put on Kim for leading his country to disaster and the region close to war.

"Fatty Kim, while you are playing games, your people are starving to death," wrote one user on the popular Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo, blaming Kim for the chronic food insecurity that years of sanctions and economic mismanagement have bought to North Korea.

But speaking too strongly against North Korea in China can have consequences. South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper said on Monday that an editor at China's Study Times had been suspended for arguing in the Financial Times that China abandon North Korea.

FRENEMY

Russia, China's giant neighbor to the north and west, also appears to be setting aside its rivalry with the United States When it comes to issues with North Korea.

Moscow has warned that heightened military activity on the Korean Peninsula was slipping into a vicious cycle, but senior Russian Foreign Ministry official Grigory Logvinov told the RIA news agency on Saturday: "At least at this point, we see that the statements (of Washington) are rather restrained. The position of the American side is a bit reassuring".

China has long been accustomed to living with its unpredictable "frenemy" neighbor, a country valued as a bulwark against the United States and feared as a source of dangerous instability.

An online survey begun over the weekend by influential Chinese tabloid the Global Times found that more than 80 percent of respondents did not believe the current situation on the Korean Peninsula was serious.

"It's not the first time North Korea has used such strong language. They often say this. I think they are probably playing a game. It's to do with what sort of person Kim Jong-un is, and his young age," said Jia Qingguo, an international relations professor at the elite Peking University.

"I really don't think they will resort to using their weapons. The possibility is very small."

Retired Major General Luo Yuan, one of China's most outspoken military figures, expressed a degree of sympathy with North Korea in a blog last week, writing that the country was only trying to push the international community to properly guarantee its security and wanted normal ties with Washington.

War was unlikely, Luo added.

"Once the joint U.S.-South Korean exercises have finished and with birthday celebrations for (late founder of North Korea) Kim Il-sung imminent, the temperature will gradually cool and get back to the status quo of no war, no unification," he wrote.

Nevertheless, there has been some criticism in China directed at the United States.

One Chinese military expert, Li Jie, who works for a Chinese navy research institution, told the website of Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily that the B-2 sortie was actually aimed more at China that North Korea.

"The ultimate strategic aim is to contain and blockade China, to distract China's attention and slow its development. What the U.S. is most worried about is the further development of China's economy and military strength," Li said.

The opinion does not seem widely shared, though deciphering the perceptions of China's military top brass is usually difficult.

The People's Liberation Army has, instead of issuing any statements about the Korean peninsula, has in recent days focused its attention on new orders to restrict the use of military license plates on cars, part of a graft crackdown.

"The Chinese people know how to shadow box and know even better about Sun Zi's Art of War, so it (the military) won't make public that which need not be known," the official China New Service said in a commentary about the Korean tensions.

(Additional reporting by Sally Huang; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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