Interception of Dutch Vessel by Chinese Aircraft Indicates Country Is Assisting North Korea in Avoiding Sanctions

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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The Netherlands’ Ministry of Defense released a statement on June 7th that said two jets and one helicopter intercepted the HNLMS Tromp, a DeZen P Provinciën-class frigate, and its NH-90 helicopter. The statement said the incident occurred as the Tromp was sailing in the East China Sea (ECS).

June 7th Incident

The incident began when two JH-7A fighter bombers intercepted and circled the Tromp “several times.” The two JH-7As and a Z-19 light attack and reconnaissance helicopter also approached the vessel’s NH-90 maritime attack helicopter during its patrol. The Defense Ministry characterized the incident as a “potentially unsafe situation” and said that it “took place in international airspace.” The Tromp is conducting patrols in the ECS to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea enacted by U.N. Security Council resolutions. The vessel marks the first time the Netherlands has participated in the U.N. Security Council’s Enforcement Coordination Cell (ECC). The vessel sailed to Japan, where it made port at the city of Nagasaki, and will participate in the Rime of the Pacific exercise set to begin on June 27th as part of its Pacific Archer 2024 world voyage.

One of two PLA JH-7As that intercepted the HNLMS Tromp and NH-90 helicopter on June 7th in the East China Sea (Photo: The Netherlands Ministry of Defence)

China’s Reaction

China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) responded to the Netherlands’ statement on June 11th during a press conference. MND spokesperson Senior Colonel Zhang Xiaogang replied to a reporter’s question regarding the article the Netherlands’ Ministry of Defense published on June 7th about the approaches the two JH-7As and Z-19 conducted against the Tromp. The reporter also pointed out that the vessel was monitoring the East China Sea under the ECC.

PLA Z-19 light attack helicopter that intercepted the Tromp’s NH-90 maritime utility helicopter on June 7th in the East China Sea (Photo: The Netherlands Ministry of Defence)

Zhang said that the Netherlands’ statement is turned over black and white (misrepresenting the facts) and is trying to cover up its infringement of the law. The spokesperson said the helicopter was located east of Shanghai when it conducted the provocation. The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command first used voice warnings and aircraft to force the Tromp to drive them away, which is completely legal and reasonable. Zhang described the process as “professional and standardized” and said that it was the Dutch, not the Chinese side, that caused the incident. He then said that the Netherlands falsely claimed it was carrying out a U.N. mission while showing force in the sea and airspace under another country’s jurisdiction, which created tensions and jeopardized friendly relations between the two countries.

China expressed their “strong dissatisfaction with the deplorable nature of the Dutch side’s words and actions” and made solemn representations to the Dutch side. The spokesperson said China told the Netherlands to “strictly restrain the actions of its air and sea force,” and any infringement or provocation would be met with resolute countermeasures by China. He also said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has always maintained a high degree of alertness and resolutely defended national sovereignty, security, and maritime rights and interests.


The three incidents indicate that China is using these interceptions to disrupt operations related to the UN’s sanctions enforcement mission against North Korea. However, China’s interference with ECC operations also pushes vessels out of areas the country considers its territory. China’s reasoning for conducting the interceptions is to show North Korea that the country is assisting the country in evading sanctions, albeit in a clandestine form. The country is hesitant to provide similar forms of assistance that Russia provides because of the potential for the United States and other countries to sanction its banks or other financial institutions. The sanctions would potentially harm China’s financial system at a time when several small and medium banks are closing down due to debt and other financial difficulties. Furthermore, the sanctions would cause the United States to increase scrutiny of China’s use of front companies to evade similar sanctions placed on the country to acquire restricted equipment and hardware.

China would be incentivized to provide this covert assistance because it would allow it to increase its relationship with and compete with Russia for influence over North Korea. The relationship between North Korea and Russia has increased significantly since both countries signed several agreements in September 2023 to increase cooperation in all areas, including military assistance. While China knew and gave its approval to both countries before they signed the agreements, China likely views the agreements as a threat that would decrease its efforts to increase influence with North Korea. However, China is limited in the support it can provide to North Korea because the country does not want to risk exposure to sanctions or other actions. Furthermore, China also understands that the revelation that it is helping North Korea evade sanctions would negatively affect its efforts to rebuild relations with Europe and other countries.

The PLA’s interference with the ECC operations also serves the second purpose of allowing China to push the naval vessels of other countries out of areas that the country considers its territorial waters. China’s rationale is to prevent countries from encroaching upon or close to its territorial waters, regardless of whether they are considered legitimate under international law. For example, the MFA, MND, and Global Time released statements or articles that specifically said all three vessels were either inside or close to Chinese territorial waters. For example, the MND and the Global Times said the HMAS Toowoomba was operating in waters near the ECS when the incident occurred in November 2023. The statement and article pointed this out to provide a rationale behind China using its sonar to prevent the divers from completing their mission. Furthermore, the Global Times article hinted that Toowoomba was inside the waters surrounding the Senkakus when the incident occurred.