BEIJING — China’s foreign minister has a plan to ease tensions in East Asia: North Korea should stop testing missiles, and the United States and South Korea should stop joint military exercises, he said Wednesday.
The comment was delivered at a news conference in Beijing two days after North Korea test-fired four missiles and the United States and South Korea began deploying a new missile defense system that Beijing opposes, raising regional tension and renewing questions about Asia policy under President Trump.
“China’s suggestion is, as a first step, for North Korea to suspend nuclear activity, and for the U.S. and South Korea to also suspend large-scale military drills,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said. This, he said, could get all sides back to the negotiating table.
Wang warned that the United States and North Korea appear headed for a collision. “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way,” he said.
“The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains.”
What Wang proposed Wednesday is not new. North Korea has pitched “suspension for suspension” many times, and the United States has balked.
But this is the first time it has been raised under Trump, presenting some new possibilities, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“We don’t know what Trump is going to do about North Korea,” Delury said. “There is a policy review underway now, and it looks like all options are on the table.”
At the heart of all this is a question about Beijing’s role in relations among China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States, particularly as Washington charts a new foreign policy under Trump.
In February, North Korea tested a solid-fuel rocket that it claimed was part of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. The country was then linked to the killing, in Malaysia, of ruler Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, who had been under Chinese protection.
On Monday, as China’s National People’s Congress opened in Beijing and U.S.-South Korea military exercises got underway, Pyongyang launched four missiles — target practice, it said.
All sides have condemned North Korea’s actions. What they cannot agree on is what to do next.
China says the conflict should be solved by the United States and North Korea — the “speeding trains” themselves. But Washington has long argued that the conflict cannot be resolved without more help from China, North Korea’s last real ally.
North Korea and China were once as close as “lips and teeth,” as communist revolutionary leader Mao Zedong put it. Although they are still technically allies — Wang resurrected Mao’s “lips and teeth” line Wednesday — China is frustrated by North Korea’s nuclear theatrics and exhausted by its economic woes.
After February’s rocket launch, Beijing closed loopholes in an existing effort to curb North Korean coal imports, a sector seen as a financial lifeline for Kim’s regime.
Chinese experts insist that Beijing has few remaining options when it comes to Pyongyang, mostly because North Korea sees the development of its nuclear program as the only way to protect against the United States — the North would rather have no coal, or no cash, than cease to exist, the theory goes.
“Even if China stops oil aid to North Korea, it will still not give up developing nuclear weapons,” said Yang Xiyu, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “We cut off coal imports from North Korea, and its economy was affected. However, North Korea can have nothing, and it will still believe it needs nuclear weapons to stop the U.S.”
Indeed, despite their many differences, Beijing and Pyongyang share a belief that the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea is the root of regional conflict — a view highlighted this week when China lashed out at the United States and South Korea over the deployment of a new antimissile system.
The United States and South Korea say the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is necessary to shoot down North Korean missiles. China believes it could be used to spy on Chinese airspace and has called the project a “strategic plot.”
Although Trump’s precise plans are unknown, his previous comments on North Korea suggest that he thinks it is up to China to play a bigger role. The THAAD deployment, however, could make it tougher to get Beijing on board.
Experts said Trump seems unlikely, for now, to accept Wang’s proposal. “There is very little possibility that they will get back to talks,” said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Communist Party’s Central Party School.
That means the next move will probably come from Washington — and depend on Trump. “We just hope that the U.S. can solve this,” Zhang said.
Congcong Zhang and Jin Xin contributed to this report.