China warned of "consequences" for South Korea and the United States over the deployment of a US anti-missile system, further raising regional tension and posing a challenge to the Trump Administration.
The stern words came a day after North Korea launched four missiles that landed off the Japanese coast - an exercise, the North Korean Government said, designed to practice for an attack on US military bases in Japan.
American and South Korean officials say the continuing missile launches by the North Koreans demonstrate why the new anti-missile system is necessary as a defence against Kim Jong Un's regime. The US military began deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to South Korea yesterday.
But Beijing sees the system as a threat to the Chinese military and evidence of US "meddling" in East Asian Affairs.
"I want to emphasise that we firmly oppose the deployment of THAAD," Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said at a daily news briefing in Beijing. "We will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our security interests.
"All consequences entailed from this will be borne by the US and the Republic of Korea."
Geng did not provide details on what "consequences" are in store for either country, although South Korean officials said they expected retaliatory moves against companies doing business in China.
The stepped-up tensions in East Asia create a potentially difficult and multipronged problem for the United States, involving:
- South Korea, in the midst of internal political turmoil;
- North Korea, often unpredictable;
- Japan, a steadfast US ally with a weak economy and an ambition to expand its military footprint;
- China, far and away the most powerful country in the region, both a US rival and a key trading partner.
At the same time, a diplomatic battle between North Korea and Malaysia after the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half brother in Kuala Lumpur escalated sharply as Pyongyang banned all Malaysians from leaving its territory, prompting the Malaysian Government to accuse it of hostage taking.
Malaysia retaliated by banning all North Koreans from exiting its borders and warning the Kim regime that it was inviting further international opprobrium. China was angered by the February 13 murder, which the Malaysians say employed VX nerve agent, and some analysts suggest the North Korean missile launch was secondarily designed to provoke Beijing.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner reiterated US criticism of North Korea and the missile launches. "They're increasingly becoming a pariah through this kind of behaviour," he said. "We're pursuing tougher and tougher sanctions, but we're also looking at other means to make that message clear to them."
China's Foreign Ministry did not specify any actions against the US, but Beijing's displeasure over the anti-missile system marked an abrupt change in tone after a generally cautious approach until now towards the new American president.
Although some Chinese initially welcomed the idea of Donald Trump's presidency, convinced a seasoned businessman would take a practical approach to politics, Trump's early moves on Taiwan spooked Beijing.
Since the inauguration, Chinese officials have taken a careful approach, playing up the positive and playing down areas of disagreement, including Trump Administration comments on the South China Sea. That is, until Geng's statement.
Plans to deploy the THAAD system, which predates the Trump presidency, have long been a source of tension between Seoul and Beijing.
In the run-up to the deployment, China has taken aim at South Korean businesses in China. Beginning on Friday, it has been warning would-be Chinese tourists against booking trips to South Korea.
Although some travel agencies have already stopped selling tickets and tours to South Korea, China's National Tourism Administration has officially ordered travel agencies to stop all tour groups and cruise ships by March 15, the South Korean official said.
The new measures would also shut down duty-free shops run by Lotte, the South Korean conglomerate that helped Seoul secure land for THAAD, according to the South Korean official.
A representative of China's Tourism Administration said by phone that the agency has indeed advised travel agencies not to sell South Korea tours or tickets.