(ATTN: UPDATES with remarks from a Defense Department official regarding China's nuclear capability in last 4 paras)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- The United States on Tuesday accused China of failing, if not refusing, to faithfully implement international sanctions placed on North Korea, citing what it called "warming" relations between the two communist neighbors.
"China largely continues to enforce a number of the U.N. Security Council's resolution sanctions against North Korea, but Beijing regularly fails to act against illicit ship-to-ship transfers in China's territorial seas, take action against China-based North Korean banking and weapons trade representatives and their activities," the U.S. Department of Defense said in its 2020 China Military Power Report.
The report noted China's alleged failure to fully implement sanctions against North Korea may have followed a recent improvement in their relationship, highlighted by exchanges between their highest leaders.
"The PRC's relationship with North Korea appeared to warm somewhat following a period tensions after China increased implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions in 2017," said the report, referring to China by its official name, the People's Republic of China.
The U.N. Security Council, to which China is a permanent member, unanimously passed its 2017 sanctions resolution after Pyongyang staged its sixth and latest nuclear test in September that year.
"In 2019, President Xi Jinping met twice with Kim Jong-un, complementing numerous lower-level official exchanges in both North Korea and China," the report noted.
Kim visited China four times between March 2018 and June 2019, when the Chinese leader traveled to Pyongyang, becoming the first Chinese president to visit the reclusive North in 14 years.
The report suggested China's loose implementation of the sanctions regime may be partly attributed to its dual-track approach toward North Korea that seeks to prevent military conflict on the Korean Peninsula and also a collapse of the North's communist regime.
"And that encourages the resumption of U.S.-North Korea talks," said the report.
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since the second bilateral summit between their leaders, held February 2019, ended without a deal.
Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump first met in Singapore in June 2018, which marked the first-ever summit between the countries' sitting heads of state.
With improved ties between their leadership, Beijing and Pyongyang have also resumed their military exchanges, the U.S. report noted.
"China and North Korea restarted high-level military diplomacy, which included North Korean participation in the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN's) international fleet review and several meetings between military officials," it said.
The report also noted the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China conducts military exercises in preparation for a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, adding China's contingency measures could include securing the China-North Korea border to prevent the flow of refugees but also its intervention.
"China could cite the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance that it signed with North Korea as a justification to send the PLA into North Korea," it said.
Meanwhile, the report estimated China's nuclear warheads stockpile to be currently at "low two hundreds" in what could be the first detailed U.S. assessment of China's nuclear capability.
"The report does contend that there's currently an estimated low two hundreds, in terms of warheads stockpiles, and it's projected to at least double in size over the next decade as China expands and modernizes nuclear forces," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia said in a webinar hosted by Washington-based U.S. policy think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Event moderator and AEI researcher Zack Cooper noted previous reports had estimated China's nuclear warheads stockpile at low three-hundreds or much higher.
"I think it's also important that the report notes that China is expanding and modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces across the board, so just looking at number of warheads by itself is not the entire picture or doesn't paint a holistic understanding of where the Chinese are or maybe where they want to go," said Sbragia.
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