China-US relations

North Korea still a sticking point after China-US dialogue

Washington keeps up demands for more pressure on Pyongyang, but Beijing makes no promises

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:26pm

Washington’s frustration with Beijing over the handling of North Korea is poised to grow, as senior officials from the two nations did not make much headway on reining in Pyongyang after ­wrapping up high-level talks.

While Beijing reiterated its compliance with UN resolutions amid allegations on Thursday about Chinese companies helping North Korea evade international sanctions, both sides appear to have failed to reach a consensus on getting tougher on the North.

They also had “direct and ­candid” discussions on other issues, such as combating global terrorism and China’s human rights record, but US Secretary of Defence James Mattis admitted after the one-day talks in Washington that there remained “disconnects” between the two sides over issues including the South China Sea.

The diplomatic and security dialogue was attended by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis, and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and ­Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Fang Fenghui.

Frustration was growing in the administration of US President Donald Trump that China had not done enough to help the US pile pressure on North Korea, Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.

Speaking at a joint briefing with Tillerson, Mattis echoed Trump, who said in a tweet that China’s efforts on North Korea had “not worked out”.

Noting that both sides agreed that “our companies should not do business with any UN-designated North Korean entities in ­accordance with these [UN] resolutions”, Tillerson said Beijing had “diplomatic responsibility” to exert pressure on Pyongyang.

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A statement from the Chinese foreign ministry said Yang had ­reiterated Beijing’s stance during the talks that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula must be resolved through dialogue, and called on the US to stop military drills targeting Pyongyang.

It reaffirmed its opposition to a controversial deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea, just days ahead of ­President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington next week.

Tillerson’s remarks laid bare the discord between China and the US on how to handle North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, ­observers said.

The Trump administration was preparing to sanction Chinese firms that facilitated money laundering and other illicit activities by North Korea, Glaser said.

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“If Beijing doesn’t work much more actively to stop these activities, and also take other measures such as reducing crude oil ­exports, I think that there is likely to be more friction between the US and China over North Korea,” she said.

The US had also provided China with a list of people or bodies that allegedly support Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons network, Tillerson told a hearing of the House Foreign ­Affairs Committee last week.

Heather Nauert, a US State ­Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on whether China had agreed to curb trading by the groups on the list.

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Zhang Liangui, of the Central Party School in Beijing, said Tillerson’s message towards China was unusually harsh. “It showed Washington understands, albeit reluctantly, its campaign to exert ‘maximum pressure’ on North Korea stands little chance of success if China continues to oppose or stall such an effort,” Zhang said. “I think Tillerson wants to increase pressure on Beijing by indicating that when such peaceful means are exhausted, military options will [be] considered.

“China is in an awkward position at the moment because its proposal has long been explicitly rejected by both North Korea and the US. Beijing has yet to put forward an alternative plan detailing what options it has if North Korea refuses to return to the negotiating table,” he said.