John Kerry‘s appeal for China to help bring North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks faced an uncertain response after the US also demanded that Beijing roll back on aggressive steps taken during territorial disputes with neighbours.
The US secretary of state opened a 24-hour visit in Beijing by meeting the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at the Great Hall of the People. Kerry planned to meet other senior officials and address issues ranging from climate change to Syria and Iran.
Kerry faces a tough sell on his main focus: North Korea and regional tensions with Japan over conflicting maritime claims.
The extent of China’s influence, and willingness to use it, with North Korea is unclear following a purge in the isolated country’s leadership. China has also angrily dismissed US criticism over moves in the East and South China seas that have alarmed US allies such as Japan and the Philippines.
In a stridently anti-Japanese editorial on Friday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the US must pressure Tokyo into ceasing its “provocative moves” or risk a future regional conflict.
“The United States has to know that, while Beijing has always been trying to address territorial brawls with some neighbouring countries through peaceful means, it will not hesitate to take steps to secure its key national security interests according to China’s sovereign rights,” Xinhua said.
In Seoul, on Thursday, Kerry said the White House wanted a fresh emphasis on getting North Korea back to six-nation talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.
“The US will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not accept talks for the sake of talks. And the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] must show that it will negotiate and live up to its commitments regarding denuclearisation.”
Efforts toward that end, he said, would rely heavily on Chinese pressure.
“China has a unique and critical role that it can play,” Kerry said. “No country has a greater potential to influence North Korea’s behavior than China, given their extensive trading relationship with the North.”
But China’s leverage with the North is being tested. Diplomats say Beijing received no prior warning of the December arrest and execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who had been considered Pyongyang’s senior official on China affairs and was a strong promoter of free trade zones being set up along their mutual border.
That followed Pyongyang’s snubbing of Beijing’s wishes when it conducted a missile test in late 2012, followed by the underground detonation of a nuclear device last spring.
Jang’s removal was seen as depriving Beijing of its chief conduit into the North Korean regime and in the weeks that followed the leadership found itself at a loss as to how to proceed. A delegation of Chinese diplomats led by the foreign ministry’s deputy head of Asian affairs visited Pyongyang last week in a sign that Beijing was trying to renew dialogue.
Those discussions involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, broke down at the end of 2008 and US officials say they see no point of restarting talks until Pyongyang shows an authentic desire to make good on its prior commitments to dismantle its nuclear programmes.
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