BEIJING — To many Americans, China bears a huge responsibility for the North Korea crisis because of its failure to rein in its volatile ally in Pyongyang.
But in Beijing, the view is different. Here, a large slice of the blame goes to Washington because of its consistently hostile attitude toward North Korea — a stance China says has only encouraged the regime to accelerate its nuclear weapons program.
China’s narrative about U.S. recklessness was reinforced this week when President Trump threatened to respond to further threats from North Korea by unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang threatened in turn to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the Western Pacific with ballistic missiles.
Trump’s rhetoric gave China the perfect platform to project itself as the voice of reason — especially as it had just agreed to join the world in stiffening sanctions against North Korea.
“China is disappointed,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “China has just made a compromise, but the U.S. president is messing things up.”
In an editorial Tuesday, the state-run China Daily said that instead of “hurling threats,” the United States and North Korea should talk.
“Over time, this mutual finger-pointing has pulled both into a spiral of escalating distrust and hostility, which is the biggest obstacle to resolving the crisis,” it wrote. “The U.S. approach to the standoff has been counterproductive because it has simply escalated the threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear/missile programs.”
As Euan Graham at the Lowy Institute in Sydney explained, China’s position has not changed. “It is still the default,” he said. “ ‘It’s not our problem.’ ”
The blame game played by Washington and Beijing is obviously not helpful in finding a solution to the crisis, experts said. But it is far from clear that China has answers, apart from hoping that a war of words does not lead to an actual war.
Its big idea — a dialogue — looks for now like a non-starter, even experts in Beijing say.
“North Korea said many times that it is absolutely not interested in anything requiring it to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Zhang Liangui, a retired professor from the Communist Party’s Central Party School. “North Korea has completely shut the door to negotiations.”
China’s long-standing support has been central to the survival of the North Korean regime and has allowed its ruling dynasty to live in luxury and security.
By far North Korea’s largest trading partner, China has been reluctant to apply the sort of economic pressure that would really bite, concerned about destabilizing its neighbor. Even when it has agreed to punish the regime, experts say, it has often allowed sanctions to be bypassed.
But it has grown increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang, even alienated from it, and has finally backed a significantly stiffer set of sanctions at the United Nations.
Now, Beijing says, is the time for dialogue. It is urging a resumption of six-party talks — involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia — that were abandoned in 2009. Indeed, the latest U.N. Security Council resolution explicitly calls for those talks to resume.
“China has always maintained that the Korean Peninsula issue should be settled through dialogue and negotiation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement Monday.
China, with Russia’s support, has made what it calls the “suspension-for-suspension proposal,” urging the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs in return for a halt to joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.
Yet many experts, including some in Beijing, voice skepticism about that plan.
“The U.S. is not on board, but that disagreement is negotiable,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University. “The main obstacle is North Korea.”
Cheng noted that the North has said repeatedly, before and after the new U.N. sanctions, that its nuclear weapons program is not a bargaining chip. “If this isn’t negotiable,” he said, “the dual suspension plan is no longer an interesting game to play.”
This means that renewed military conflict between the United States and North Korea — a prospect that had remained remote since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War — now cannot be ruled out. For the time being, it may be a question of hoping that neither side really intends to follow through on its threats.
“My suggestion to the government: Hold awhile,” Cheng recommended to Beijing. “When everyone is talking tough, people’s tempers may be at high tide. Given time, all parties may calm down. If not, and the conflict intensifies, China could take a more active step, like sending an envoy to Washington, Pyongyang, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow for shuttle diplomacy.”
Yet in addition to its discomfort with the U.S. approach, China is also showing signs of growing exasperation with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Kim’s repeated defiance of Security Council resolutions has increased Beijing’s frustration,” said Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group. “That has created space for a wider policy debate in China, between those who think China has to stand behind North Korea no matter what and those who call for abandoning it and cooperating more with the U.S.”
The debate is unlikely to be resolved before a key Communist Party congress in the fall, Kovrig said, with President Xi Jinping reluctant to do anything for now that might alienate party traditionalists who still see North Korea as an important ally.
China’s preferred option, he said, remains “getting the parties to de-escalate and return to some form of dialogue that kicks the can down the road.”
Against that backdrop, experts say, Trump’s rhetoric is particularly unwelcome in Beijing.
“Washington should stimulate Pyongyang’s desire to engage with the outside world and return to the international community,” China’s nationalist Global Times wrote in an editorial. “However, Washington only wants to heighten the sanctions and military threats against Pyongyang, which is adding fuel to the flames.”
The paper complained that the United States has adopted a more hard-line approach toward North Korea since Trump came to power, referencing comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this year that all options, including military options, were on the table.
Washington has also long underestimated the price North Korea is prepared to pay in pursuit of nuclear missiles, which the regime sees as essential to its survival, it said.
The paper’s editor in chief, Hu Xijin, issued two short videos this week warning that as long as the hostility between the United States and North Korea remains unresolved, North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons.
“When the U.S. fails to contain North Korea, it blames China for not handling it,” he said. “That is just foolish thinking, yet in the U.S., many people believe this to be logical. That’s just sad.”
It’s also dangerous, Hu said, for Washington to play a game of chicken with Pyongyang.
“There’s a Chinese saying: A man with nothing to lose doesn’t fear a man with something to lose,” he said. “So it’s best if Washington doesn’t try to engage in a battle of wills with Pyongyang. They don’t scare easily.
Shirley Feng and Yang Liu contributed to this report.