The US and China pledged on Saturday to work together in addressing the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programme, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the situation had reached a “dangerous level.”
The language from Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart after talks in Beijing was notably conciliatory after a run-up in which US President Donald Trump accused China of doing nothing to control its rogue neighbour while Beijing blamed Washington for fuelling hostilities.
“I think we share a common view and a sense that tensions in the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level,” Tillerson said after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“We will work together to see if we cannot bring the government in Pyongyang to a place where they want to make a different course, make a course correction, and move away from the development of nuclear weapons,” Yi added.
Tillerson arrived in Beijing earlier Saturday after visits to US allies Japan and South Korea where he said the US would no longer observe the “failed” approach of patient diplomacy favoured by Beijing and followed by the Obama administration.
Trump upped the pressure in a Friday Twitter blast accusing Beijing of failing to use its leverage as North Korea's key diplomatic and trade partner.
“North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been 'playing' the United States for years. China has done little to help!” Trump said.
The tougher US talk followed two North Korean nuclear tests last year and recent missile launches, including a salvo earlier this month that Pyongyang described as practice for an attack on US bases in Japan.
Beijing is deeply reluctant to put harsh pressure on the unpredictable North lest it trigger a confrontation or a messy regime collapse.
China has hit back at the US, angrily accusing it of escalating the situation by holding military exercises with its ally Seoul and deploying an anti-missile system in South Korea.
Beijing has been calling for a resumption of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear programme ─ which UN resolutions bar it from pursuing ─ a track pursued for years in the past but which notably failed.
“We can either let the situation aggravate and lead to conflict or go back to the right track of negotiations,” Wang said.
“We both hope to find ways to restart talks and do not give up hope for peace.”
Neither side indicated any next steps.
Tillerson, a former Exxon oil executive who until this week had adopted a low profile in office, said in Seoul on Friday that the US and its allies were “exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures.” He gave no details but said US military action against North Korea remained “on the table” if Pyongyang escalated its provocations.
China has taken shots at his get-tough approach, saying in recent days that its call for diplomatic talks was the “only feasible option” and challenging the Trump administration to propose something better. One reason for the amicable tone on Saturday may be that delicate negotiations are ongoing for President Xi Jinping to visit Trump ─ a frequent China critic ─ in a first summit between the leaders next month in the United States.
Tillerson was expected to meet Xi on Sunday morning.
Beijing shares US concerns over Pyongyang's nuclearisation but is careful not to provoke North Korea. But China took one of its toughest steps yet in February, announcing it would halt all imports of North Korean coal ─ a key source of income for the impoverished state ─ for the rest of this year, citing the UN sanctions.
The United Nations has imposed multiple sets of sanctions but China is accused of not fully enforcing them.
Under the Obama administration, the US ruled out diplomatic engagement until Pyongyang made a tangible commitment to denuclearisation, hoping that internal stresses in the isolated country would bring change.
North Korea says it needs to be able to defend itself, and conducted its first underground atomic test in 2006, triggering global condemnation. Four more test blasts have followed.
Beijing also is upset over the US deployment of an anti-missile system to South Korea that Washington and Seoul insist is purely a defensive measure against a possible North Korean attack.
But Beijing says the system undermines its own security and has reacted angrily, imposing a series of measures seen in South Korea as economic retaliation.