U.S. President Donald Trump's strategy toward North Korea hinges on China, senior administration officials told CNN on Thursday.
"Nobody thinks the Chinese are going to press North Korea militarily or bring the regime to its knees, but the strategy looks to China to find a political solution more than anything else," one of the officials told the network.
The officials said Trump's approach is based on a careful review of past U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea, noting that during the analysis of failed negotiating efforts with the long-reigning Kim family, one thing became abundantly clear: "China has never exerted maximum leverage on the Kim regime."
Trump's China-centric approach comes as the U.S. sees evidence that the Chinese military is preparing to respond to a potential situation in North Korea, a defense official told CNN on Thursday.
Chinese air force land-attack, cruise-missile-capable bombers were put "on high alert" on Wednesday, the official said, adding that the U.S. has also seen an extraordinary number of Chinese military aircraft being brought up to full readiness through intensified maintenance.
The official said that these recent steps by the Chinese are assessed as part of an effort to "reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency."
Such a contingency could include the risk of an armed conflict breaking out as tensions on the peninsula have risen in the wake of the recent North Korean missile tests.
There has also been ratcheted up rhetoric from the U.S. and Pyongyang, with the latter's state media warning Thursday that a pre-emptive strike by North Korea would result in the United States and South Korea being "completely destroyed in an instant."
China has long been concerned about potential instability in North Korea should the regime in Pyongyang collapse, fearing both an influx of refugees and the potential of reunification under a South Korean government closely allied to the United States, noted CNN.
Given the close economic links between North Korea and China, U.S. military officials have said that Beijing is critical to solving the North Korean situation, with Trump recently commending Chinese President Xi Jinping for Chinese efforts to curb Pyongyang's activities.
China appeared to be reciprocating Wednesday, noted CNN, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying Beijing was "gravely concerned" about North Korea's recent nuclear and missile activities while simultaneously praising Washington's approach to the issue.
One senior administration official cautioned that the China-centric strategy was still in an early stage, and that "there are many more stages to go."