BEIJING — Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday that China’s leaders told him that they were willing to put additional pressure on North Korea if it did not return to talks about abandoning its nuclear weapons program, but he acknowledged that Washington and Beijing took different approaches to the issue.
On a tour though Asia, Kerry said he held a constructive meeting Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. He said he urged China to “use every tool at its disposal” to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
But Washington-based China experts said Beijing was unlikely to push its longtime ally too far over the issue and remained unwilling to join a U.S.-led attempt to isolate the Pyongyang regime.
Kerry was also using his trip to try to calm regional tensions. He signaled U.S. unhappiness with a series of assertive steps taken by Beijing in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors, but he called on all sides to show restraint.
At the same time, he discussed a range of issues with his Chinese hosts, he said, including climate change, human rights, Syria and Iran. But the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program topped the agenda. Kerry arrived in Beijing after visiting the South Korean capital, Seoul.
North Korea “must take meaningful, concrete and irreversible steps toward verifiable denuclearization, and it needs to begin now,” Kerry said at a news conference. “China could not have been more emphatic, or made it more clear, that they will not allow a nuclear program over the long run, that they believe deeply in denuclearization, that denuclearization must occur, and that they are committed to doing their part to make that happen.”
Kerry said the two sides exchanged ideas on how to put more pressure on Pyongyang and that they would evaluate each other’s proposals. But he acknowledged that China was deeply concerned about instability on the Korean Peninsula and preferred a path of diplomacy.
While the United States wants to see North Korea take verifiable steps towards denuclearization before resuming talks, Beijing wants Washington to lower the threshold for talks and provide Pyongyang with some sort of security guarantee. China appears to want to encourage Pyongyang along the path it has followed — of economic opening and global engagement — leaving the issue of denuclearization as a longer-term goal.
The International Crisis Group said a sustained shift toward a sterner policy was unlikely any time soon, with China unwilling to do anything that could destabilize the regime.
“Because neither Beijing nor Washington desires a war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula that could draw them in, the two sides share the interests of managing Pyongyang’s behaviors and can cooperate on reining in North Korea’s belligerence and provocation,” said the Crisis Group’s Beijing-based analyst, Yanmei Xie.
“But on the fundamental issue of North Korea’s nuclear ambition, China is not yet ready to face the risks associated with denuclearization, which could threaten Beijing’s bottom lines: no instability, no regime change and no unification that could turn the entire Korean Peninsula into a U.S. ally.”
But Wang Dong of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University argued that criticism of China — for prioritizing stability over denuclearization — was oversimplified.
“There has been a very important recalibration of China’s policy toward North Korea,” he said. “China has this twin goal of denuclearization and maintaining stability, and I'd argue that the new leadership [in China] has increasingly understood that without denuclearization, there will be no durable stability. They are now willing to put more pressure to North Korea, especially after the third nuclear test or if North Korea displays further provocative and irresponsible behavior down the road.”
This is Kerry’s fifth trip to Asia in his first year in office, but he has still to shake off a perception in some quarters he is more interested in the Middle East than in this part of the world.
The Obama administration says it wants to refocus American foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific, but that strategic rebalance has become something of a headache lately because of rising tensions between Japan and China, centered on a territorial dispute concerning a chain of small, rocky islands.
Last November, China declared an air defense identification zone over much of the East China Sea, including over those islands, which are administered by Japan. The United States saw that move as raising the risk of miscalculations and accidents that could spark a military conflict.
At the same time, China’s patrol vessels have kept a regular presence around the disputed islands, while its naval ships have also stepped up their presence in the South China Sea.
On Friday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said that rather than blaming China, the United States must pressure Tokyo to cease its “provocative moves” — or risk a regional conflict in the future.