Clock ticking for China to bring North Korea to nuclear talks table
Broad agreement between Washington and Beijing on need for more action but both sides still have to nail down specifics, analysts say
China realises it has limited time to use talks to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and is open to further sanctions against Pyongyang, a senior US diplomat said in Beijing on Friday.
But members of a prominent Chinese think tank have also reportedly warned that Beijing is doing all it can and the Washington cannot expect it to do much more.
Chinese analysts said the apparent mixed signals on China’s position reflected broad agreement between Beijing and Washington on the need for further action but specific measures still had to be ironed out.
In Beijing on a two-day trip, acting assistant secretary of state Susan Thornton said China understood the United States viewed the North Korea situation as an urgent “time-limited problem set”.
“So they know now that they don’t have, I think, as much time to try to bring the North Koreans to the table to get their calculus changed and get them to the negotiating table,” Thornton said. “And I think that has lent some urgency to their measures.”
Thornton said the US planned to discuss with China a new UN Security Council resolution on “pre-negotiated measures” to cut delays in any response to further nuclear tests or other provocations from Pyongyang.
She said there were no signs that Beijing had gone cold on potentially implementing more measures against Pyongyang though Beijing believed sanctions would not work “overnight”.
Thornton’s assessment came as US President Donald Trump told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the “problem” of an increasingly belligerent North Korea would be “solved”, Agence France-Presse reported.
“It’s a big problem, it’s a world problem,” Trump said in the Sicilian town of Taormina before the start of Friday’s Group of 7 meeting. “It will be solved.”
He said the issue would be raised in joint meetings with the other six heads of leading industrialised countries.
Tensions over North Korea have risen since Pyongyang successfully conducted two ballistic missile tests in the last fortnight, one just hours before Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted dozens of leaders from around the world for a landmark investment and infrastructure summit.
Chinese analysts said the United Nations Security Council had been weighing new resolutions against provocations by Pyongyang and Thornton could be trying to determine Beijing’s detailed position on the issue.
But Stephen Noerper, a senior director at the New York-based Korea Society, said delegates from the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank closely linked to the Chinese government, suggested that Beijing would not support using more sanctions to further pressure North Korea.
Noerper, a former senior analyst in the US Department of State, said that in a meeting this week with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, a US-based think tank, the Chinese delegates said they felt the US should not expect too much more from China because it was already doing all it could.
“There is a multiplicity of opinions in Beijing about what to do with this, but the Chinese are also admitting their limited reach on this,” Noerper said. “You know, you can only do so much to rein in a nationalistic, independent-minded Pyongyang.”
Jilin University professor Sun Xingjie said it seemed that both sides had some understanding of the other’s thinking.
“[Beijing and Washington] are not necessarily in deep dispute but facing complex uncertainties and concerns in the way to deal with the Kim Jong-un regime [in North Korea],” Sun said.
He said it would take time to come up with a new sustainable and effective way to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, especially when the most recent UN resolution, the strictest so far, had apparently failed.
“Small changes in measures are unlikely to have any deterrent effect, but it would be too risky if the measures are too tough,” Sun said.
“If the new resolution doesn’t stop [Kim], what more can China and the US do? And when is the proper time to take measures that are tougher than the existing economic sanctions? Both China and the US are not so sure about the answers to all these questions.”
Since the first meeting between Xi and Trump in Florida last month, Beijing, Pyongyang’s long-term ally and Washington, its sworn enemy, seem to have found some common ground in dealing with North Korea, especially on the push for peaceful denuclearisation.
Renmin University associate professor of international relations Cheng Xiaohe said North Korea had put China in a very difficult position.
“In this case, the two sides [Beijing and Washington] are becoming more active than before in seeking a balance in negotiations over the possible sanctions,” Cheng said.