Beijing Probably Counts Tillerson’s China Trip as a SuccessBy
China has long urged U.S. and North Korea to speak directly
Tillerson said U.S. has direct channels to Pyongyang
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China ended with an awkward public rebuke from his president for raising the prospect of talks with North Korea. But for Beijing the trip probably counted as a success.
Tillerson’s 12 hours on the ground in Beijing saw him called out by Donald Trump after he revealed the U.S. had direct channels to Pyongyang -- and was using them. Trump has said previously the time for dialogue with North Korea has passed, threatened to destroy the regime if provoked and warned that military action remains an option.
“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson told reporters on Saturday after meeting Chinese officials, referring to North Korea. “We can talk to them, we do talk to them directly, through our own channels,” adding the U.S. has “a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.”
In response, Trump posted on Twitter that Tillerson was "wasting his time," adding “save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Still, the mixed signals from the U.S. over reining in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may not concern China much. Rather, Tillerson’s acknowledgment that direct channels do exist between the U.S. and Pyongyang is welcome news for Chinese President Xi Jinping, given he has frequently urged bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea to defuse the tensions.
“China would like to see the U.S. take the lead on solving the issue,” said Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Academy of Social Sciences in Heilongjiang province. “Direct dialogue between Trump and Kim would be a relief to China, which has been trying to offload the burden and pressure of North Korea’s nuclear development.”
Too Much, Too Little
The Chinese foreign ministry has consulted with policy experts in recent weeks to seek their views on potential diplomatic solutions to the North Korean crisis, according to a person who attended the meetings but is not authorized to speak publicly. Beijing is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and its main backer.
For China, talks are probably still the preferred option, even as it grows frustrated with its ally. Conversely, Beijing-endorsed stricter United Nations sanctions have angered Pyongyang. In a commentary last month, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party said Chinese state media was “seriously hurting the line and social system of the DPRK and threatening the DPRK," using an acronym for the country’s formal name.
Some Chinese officials believe Beijing has done too much and Washington too little to rein in Pyongyang.
“The U.S. has shown no willingness to make serious efforts to tackle the real issue” of achieving denuclearization by acknowledging North Korea’s security concerns, Fu Ying, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s legislature, wrote in a recent article in the Financial Times.
“The Trump administration has called on China to do more. China has responded by offering stronger support for tougher UN sanctions,” said Fu, a former vice foreign minister. “However, the U.S. is single-mindedly pursuing an intensification of the sanctions regime. Yet it is already clear that sanctions alone could not curb North Korea’s nuclear programme.”
During his campaign for president, Trump said he could negotiate with Kim over a hamburger. But in recent months he’s engaged in an increasingly hostile war of words with the North Korean leader, describing him as "Rocket Man." Kim responded in North Korea’s state media by calling Trump a "dotard" and promising the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history." His foreign minister went as far as saying the regime’s options included testing a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean.
Still, some analysts in China see the changeable rhetoric from Washington as problematic.
“The ball is in Trump’s court,” said Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “Dialogue is a good sign. But I wouldn’t be surprised if his administration changes their mind and decides to react very strongly with military options.”
— With assistance by Nick Wadhams