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Xi again urges restraint over North Korea crisis in phone call from Trump

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis in a phone call with his US counterpart Donald Trump on Wednesday, as hostile rhetoric and the threat of military action escalated.

The conversation between the two leaders came less than a week after they met at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida - suggesting both nations were growing increasingly concerned that tensions on the Korean peninsula were becoming uncontainable.

Trump tweeted he "had a very good call last night with the president of China concerning the menace of North Korea".

In the conversation, Xi stressed the importance of "peaceful means to solve problems", according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who said Xi took the call "at the invitation" of Trump.

"Xi Jinping has stressed China insists on denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula to firmly safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula," the ministry said in a statement, adding Beijing was willing to maintain communication with the US on the matter.

North Korea is marking several key anniversaries this month and many speculate it could use the occasions for a sixth nuclear test or more missile launches. Trump has ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier into waters off the Korean peninsula, and several Japanese warships were expected to join its strike group.

The North Korean government has claimed the "current grim situation" justified its "self-defensive and pre-emptive strike capabilities with the nuclear force at the core".

Russia said it was worried about the possibility of a US attack on North Korea and it would raise the issue with visiting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian media quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

Wu Dawei, Beijing's chief negotiator for Korean affairs, holding talks in Seoul over how to handle Pyongyang. Wu signalled China might impose tougher sanctions, but also called on Seoul not to deploy a US anti-missile shield Beijing viewed as a threat to its national security, Yonhap News Agency reported.

There has been speculation that China has sent 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea, but the defence ministry dismissed it as "purely fabricated".

Xi and Trump did not reach a consensus over North Korea at their Mar-a-Lago meeting, with China insisting on "peaceful means" and the US reserving military options. The US launched a missile strike against Syria on the first night of the summit, in a move widely seen as a message to China and North Korea that it was willing to take unilateral action.

Trump revealed some of the substance of his conversation with Xi in Florida in tweets on Tuesday. "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!" he said. "I explained to the president of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!"

Observers said the frequent exchanges between Xi and Trump indicated tensions on the peninsula were on the rise. "The phone call is part of the communication mechanism between the presidents of China and the US. I think we will see more of it in the future, and at this time also as a crisis-management measure," said Cai Jian, a Korean affairs specialist at Fudan University. "As the situation continues to develop quickly, the leaders need to explain and communicate with each other."

Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said Trump was putting severe pressure on North Korea with his threats, but he was probably more intending to push China. However, Beijing could only act within the limits of the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, targeting Pyongyang's economy.

Su said China would give Pyongyang a clear warning about the consequences of carrying out a new nuclear test. Beijing would also urge restraint.

Zhang Huizhi, an international relations professor at Jilin University, said China was limited in its options and was unlikely to agree to Trump's call to take tougher action against North Korea in exchange for a favourable US trade deal.

"China can only passively prepare contingency plans, and maybe also work with the Japanese and South Koreans to push the US to lower the temperature," Zhang said.

[Source: South China Morning Post, Reuters, Hong Kong, 12Apr17]

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