US, China to cooperate on 'dangerous' N.Korea situation

The US and China pledged on Saturday to work together in addressing the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programme, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the situation had reached a "dangerous level."

The language from Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart after talks in Beijing was notably conciliatory after a run-up in which US President Donald Trump accused China of doing nothing to control its rogue neighbour while Beijing blamed Washington for fuelling hostilities.

"I think we share a common view and a sense that tensions in the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level," Tillerson said after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

"We will work together to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want to make a different course, make a course correction, and move away from the development of nuclear weapons."

Tillerson arrived in Beijing earlier Saturday after visits to US allies Japan and South Korea where he said the US would no longer observe the "failed" approach of patient diplomacy favoured by Beijing and followed by the Obama administration.

Trump upped the pressure in a Friday Twitter blast accusing Beijing of failing to use its leverage as North Korea's key diplomatic and trade partner.

"North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!" Trump said.

The tougher US talk followed two North Korean nuclear tests last year and recent missile launches, including a salvo earlier this month that Pyongyang described as practice for an attack on US bases in Japan.

Beijing is deeply reluctant to put harsh pressure on the unpredictable North lest it trigger a confrontation or a messy regime collapse.

China has hit back at the US, angrily accusing it of escalating the situation by holding military exercises with its ally Seoul and deploying an anti-missile system in South Korea.

Beijing has been calling for a resumption of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear programme -- which UN resolutions bar it from pursuing -- a track pursued for years in the past but which notably failed.

"We can either let the situation aggravate and lead to conflict or go back to the right track of negotiations," Wang said.

"We both hope to find ways to restart talks and do not give up hope for peace."

- Summit looms -

Neither side indicated any next steps.

Tillerson, a former Exxon oil executive who until this week had adopted a low profile in office, said in Seoul on Friday that the US and its allies were "exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures."

He gave no details but said US military action against North Korea remained "on the table" if Pyongyang escalated its provocations.

China has taken shots at his get-tough approach, saying in recent days that its call for diplomatic talks was the "only feasible option" and challenging the Trump administration to propose something better.

One reason for the amicable tone on Saturday may be that delicate negotiations are ongoing for President Xi Jinping to visit Trump -- a frequent China critic -- in a first summit between the leaders next month in the United States.

Tillerson was expected to meet Xi on Sunday morning.

Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang's nuclearisation but is careful not to provoke North Korea.

But China took one of its toughest steps yet in February, announcing it would halt all imports of North Korean coal -- a key source of income for the impoverished state -- for the rest of this year, citing the UN sanctions.

The United Nations has imposed multiple sets of sanctions but China is accused of not fully enforcing them.

Under the Obama administration, the US ruled out diplomatic engagement until Pyongyang made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation, hoping that internal stresses in the isolated country would bring change.

North Korea says it needs to be able to defend itself, and conducted its first underground atomic test in 2006, triggering global condemnation. Four more test blasts have followed.

Beijing also is upset over the US deployment of an anti-missile system to South Korea that Washington and Seoul insist is purely a defensive measure against a possible North Korean attack.

But Beijing says the system undermines its own security and has reacted angrily, imposing a series of measures seen in South Korea as economic retaliation.

© Mark Schiefelbein/Getty Images U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks during a bilateral meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, not shown, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 18, 2017 in Beijing, China.

China pushes back on tougher U.S. approach to North Korea

China on Saturday dismissed U.S. efforts to adopt a stronger stance toward North Korea, testing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the progress he hopes to achieve in Beijing on the final, most precarious leg of his Asia tour.

The day before Tillerson’s visit, he said “all options are on the table” with North Korea, reversing the approachof previous administrations and signalling to Beijing that the United States has not ruled out military strikes on China’s ally. On Saturday in Beijing, Tillerson warned that the threat from North Korea was at a “rather dangerous level.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, standing next to Tillerson after their meeting, urged the U.S. to remain “cool-headed” as it seeks to suppress North Korean nuclear ambitions that have reached “a new crossroads.”

“No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek a peaceful settlement,” Wang said, adding that sanctions are largely an issue between the U.S. and Pyongyang.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, standing next to Tillerson after their meeting, urged the U.S. to remain “cool-headed” as it seeks to suppress North Korean nuclear ambitions that have reached “a new crossroads.”

“No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek a peaceful settlement,” Wang said, adding that sanctions are largely an issue between the U.S. and Pyongyang.

Still, Wang emphasized a desire for collaboration, and Tillerson said the U.S. planned to work with China and others “to bring North Korea to a different place where we are hopeful we can begin a dialogue.”

Tillerson has brought new urgency to dealings over North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong Un, is seen by Western diplomats as erratic and determined to flex his military muscle.

It was not clear if Tillerson was disappointed by Beijing’s less than enthusiastic backing. China is North Korea’s lone ally and principal trading partner and can exert influence, if it desires to do so.

On the first high-level official visit to China under President Trump, Tillerson had hoped to enlist China’s help in cracking down on Kim. But it appears that China still has doubts about the policies that will be adopted by an inexperienced U.S. leader, who repeatedly attacked Beijing’s trade practices during the election campaign.

In contrast to a long line of predecessors, Tillerson refused to allow the traditional contingent of reporters to travel with him, making it more difficult to glean his impressions of the talks.

The Texas oilman also met with a top Chinese foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, at the lakeside Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in west Beijing and will see President Xi Jinping on Sunday.

These meetings wrap up a six-day Asia tour during which Tillerson sought to reassure allies in Japan and South Korea of the U.S.’ commitment to the region. His purpose in China is different.

Tillerson will continue to lay the groundwork for a Florida summit between Trump and Xi in early April while navigating Chinese leaders’ concerns about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, disputes over the South China Sea and a potential trade war. The Chinese government is especially keen to maintain stability before a leadership transition this fall.

Tillerson said he discussed human rights with Wang, a topic the administration has not appeared to prioritize. His decision not to allow reporters on the trip could undermine his credibility with China if he brings up rights such as freedom of the press.

“For Tillerson, and the Chinese largely, this trip is an opportunity to sort of measure each other,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon. “There are so many problems that can occur in this relationship. It’s important for Tillerson to get out there and get a lay of the land.”

North Korea’s nuclear aims feature most prominently in the discussions, particularly after Trump berated China on Friday for failing to rein in its neighbor.

“North Korea is behaving very badly,” he wrote on Twitter. “They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”

The Chinese government has for decades refused to impose sanctions that would cripple its neighbor’s economy out of fear of a refugee crisis on its border. Leaders also worry about the loss of a buffer between South Korea and its allies.

China took an initial step last month to squeeze North Korea by temporarily suspending coal imports from the country. But further collaboration with the U.S. will be complicated by the recent deployment of an American anti-missile system in South Korea that China sees as a threat to its own security.

Beijing has positioned itself instead as the mediator. It recently proposed a swap: North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt of American and South Korean military exercises. The U.S. and South Korea rebuffed the idea.

The U.S. and North Korea “are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way,” Wang, the foreign minister, told reporters last week. “The question is: Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?”

Tillerson, while in Seoul earlier, rejected the idea of negotiations with North Korea. He was expected to warn Chinese officials that the U.S. is willing to bolster military defenses and put pressure on Chinese banks if the country doesn’t do more to curb its reclusive neighbor’s efforts.

Wang said Saturday that China had come up with proposals for all sides to study, but did not elaborate.

“For the Chinese, Tillerson is still a bit of a mystery,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing and a former China affairs director on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “They’re still trying to figure out who he is, what role he’ll play on China policy in the White House.”

A commentary on Friday from the official Xinhua News Agency warned that President George W. Bush also had threatened to use military options and gotten nowhere. “The approach illustrated that Washington needs to talk to [North Korea], not to terrorize it,” the analysis said.

Chinese state media largely cast the visit as an opportunity for understanding. But few analysts believe the talks will produce definitive action.

“China now has a very difficult diplomatic relationship,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “I don’t expect Tillerson’s visit to make any breakthroughs.”

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