China on Saturday dismissed U.S. efforts to adopt a a stronger stance toward North Korea, testing the progress Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hopes to achieve in Beijing on the final, most precarious leg of his Asia tour.
Tillerson’s visit came a day after he warned of using “all options” against North Korea, reversing the tactics of previous administrations and sending a direct signal to Beijing that the U.S. has not ruled out military strikes on China’s ally.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, standing next to Tillerson after their meeting, urged the U.S. to stay “cool-headed” as it seeks to suppress North Korean nuclear ambitions that have reached “a new crossroads.”
“No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek a peaceful settlement,” Wang said, adding that sanctions are largely an issue between the U.S. and Pyongyang.
But Wang emphasized a desire for collaboration and Tillerson took a gentler tone than in his previous comments. He warned that tensions with North Korea had reached a “dangerous level,” and said the U.S. planned to work with China and others “to bring North Korea to a different place where we are hopeful we can begin a dialogue.”
Tillerson’s trip marks the first high-level official visit to China under President Donald Trump — who repeatedly attacked the nation’s trade practices during his campaign — and will set the tone for a new administration that has offered China little indication of its policies.
The Texas oilman also met with a top Chinese foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, on Saturday at the lakeside Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in west Beijing. Tillerson will see President Xi Jinping on Sunday.
These meetings wrap up a six-day Asia tour during which Tillerson sought to reassure allies in Japan and South Korea of the United States’ commitment to the region. His role in China is much different.
Tillerson will continue to lay the groundwork for a Florida resort summit between Trump and Xi in early April, and navigate Chinese leaders’ concerns about U.S. policy toward Taiwan, disputes over the South China Sea and a potential trade war. The Chinese government is especially keen to maintain stability before a leadership transition this fall.
Tillerson said he discussed human rights with Wang, a topic the administration has not appeared to prioritize.
“For Tillerson, and the Chinese largely, this trip is an opportunity to sort of measure each other,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon. “There are so many problems that can occur in this relationship. It’s important for Tillerson to get out there and get a lay of the land.”
North Korea’s nuclear aims feature most prominently in the discussions, particularly after Trump berated China on Friday for failing to rein in its neighbor.
“North Korea is behaving very badly,” he wrote on Twitter. “They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
The Chinese government — North Korea’s biggest trading partner and main ally — has for decades refused to impose sanctions that would cripple its neighbor’s economy out of fears of a refugee crisis on the border. Leaders also worry about the loss of a buffer between democratic South Korea and its allies.
China took an initial step last month to squeeze North Korea by temporarily suspending imports of North Korean coal. But further collaboration with the U.S. is complicated by the recent deployment of an American anti-missile system in South Korea that China sees as a threat to its own security.
Beijing has positioned itself instead as the mediator. It recently proposed a swap: North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt of American and South Korean military exercises. The U.S. and South Korea immediately rebuffed the idea.
The U.S. and North Korea “are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way,” Wang, the foreign minister, told reporters last week. “The question is: Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?”
Tillerson, while in Seoul earlier, rejected negotiations with North Korea. He was expected to warn Chinese officials that the U.S. is willing to bolster military defenses and put pressure on Chinese banks if the country doesn’t do more to curb its reclusive neighbor’s efforts. Wang said on Saturday that China had come up with proposals for all sides to study, but did not explain them.
“For the Chinese, Tillerson is still a bit of a mystery,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing and former China affairs director on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “They’re still trying to figure out who he is, what role he’ll play on China policy in the White House.”
A commentary on Friday from the official Xinhua News Agency warned that George W. Bush also had threatened military options and gotten nowhere. “The approach illustrated that Washington needs to talk to [North Korea], not to terrorize it,” the analysis said.
Chinese state media largely cast the visit as an opportunity for understanding. But few analysts believe the talks will produce definitive action.
“China now has a very difficult diplomatic relationship,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “I don’t expect Tillerson’s visit to make any breakthroughs.”
Meyers is a special Los Angeles Times correspondent. Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing contributed to this report.