Dodging blame, China urges U.S. to stop hurling threats at North Korea
BEIJING — In the eyes of many Americans, China bears a huge responsibility for the North Korea crisis for failing to rein its aggressive and volatile ally in Pyongyang.
But in Beijing, the story is told very differently. Here, a large slice of the blame goes to Washington for its consistently hostile attitude towards North Korea, which has only encouraged the regime to invest in and accelerate its nuclear weapons program.
China’s narrative about the reckless U.S. approach was only reinforced this week when President Trump threatened to respond to further threats from North Korea by unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang responded by threatening to strike the U.S. territory of Guam in the Western Pacific with ballistic missiles.
It gave China the perfect platform to project itself as the voice of reason: especially as it had just agreed to join the world in stiffening sanctions against the North Korean regime.
“China is disappointed.” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “China has just made a compromise, but the U.S. president is messing things up.”
In an editorial on Tuesday, state-run China Daily said that instead of “hurling threats,” the governments of the United States and North Korea should talk.
“Over time, this mutual finger-pointing has pulled both into a spiral of escalating distrust and hostility, which is the biggest obstacle to resolving the crisis,” it wrote.
“The U.S. approach to the standoff has been counterproductive because it has simply escalated the threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear/missile programs.”
As Euan Graham at the Lowy Institute in Sydney says, China’s position has not changed. “It is still the default: it’s not our problem,” he said.
That shifting of the blame between Washington and Beijing is obviously not helpful in finding a solution to this escalating crisis, experts say.
But it is far from clear China has any answers to solve the crisis, apart from hoping that a war of words does not disintegrate into an actual war.
Its big idea — a dialogue — looks for now like a non-starter, even experts in Beijing say.
“North Korea said many times that it is absolutely not interested in anything requiring it to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Zhang Liangui, a retired professor from Communist Party’s Central Party School. “North Korea has completely shut the door to negotiations.”
China’s long-standing support has been central to the survival of the North Korean regime and allowed its ruling dynasty to live in luxury and security.
By far the country’s largest trading partner, it has been very reluctant to apply the sort of economic pressure that would really bite, concerned about doing anything that could destabilize its neighbor. Even when it has agreed to sanction the regime, experts say it has often allowed them to be bypassed.
But it has grown increasingly frustrated with the Pyongyang regime, even alienated from it, and has finally supported a significantly stiffer set of sanctions at the United Nations.
Now, Beijing argues, is the time for dialogue, urging a resumption of six-party talks, involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia that were abandoned in 2009. Indeed, the latest Security Council resolution explicitly calls for those talks to resume.
“China calls on relevant countries to remain restrained and make positive efforts to ease the tensions and properly resolve the Korean Peninsula issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement Monday. “China has always maintained that the Korean Peninsula issue should be settled through dialogue and negotiation.
China, with Russia’s support, has made what it calls the “suspension for suspension proposal,” calling for the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program in return for a halt to military exercises between the United States and South Korea.
Yet even in Beijing, many experts don’t believe that even this plan offers a viable path out of the crisis, or a way to convince the North to ultimately give up its nuclear weapons program.
“The U.S. is not on board, but that disagreement is negotiable,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
“The main obstacle is North Korea,” he said. “It has said clearly, before and after the new U.N. sanctions, that its nuclear weapon program is not a bargaining chip, to exchange for any deals or benefits. It’s not negotiable. Then if this isn’t negotiable, the dual suspension plan is no longer an interesting game to play.”
This means military conflict between the United States and North Korea, previously unthinkable, now cannot be ruled out. For now, it may be a question of hoping that neither side really intends to follow through on its threats.
“My suggestion to the government: hold a while,” Cheng recommended to Beijing.
“When everyone is talking tough, people’s tempers may be at high tide. Given time, all parties may calm down. If not, and the conflict intensifies, China could take a more active step, like sending an envoy to Washington, Pyongyang, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow for shuttle diplomacy.”
Yet there is certainly massive frustration with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as discomfort with the American approach.
“Kim’s repeated defiance of Security Council resolutions has increased Beijing’s frustration,” said Michael Kovrig with the International Crisis Group. “That has created space for a wider policy debate in China, between those who think China has to stand behind North Korea no matter what, and those who call for abandoning it and cooperating more with the U.S.”
But that debate is unlikely to be resolved before a key Communist Party Congress in the fall, Kovrig said, with President Xi Jinping reluctant to do anything that might alienate traditionalists within the party who still see North Korea as an important ally.
“For now, China’s preferred option is to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula while getting the parties to de-escalate and return to some form of dialogue that kicks the can down the road,” he said.
Against that backdrop, experts say Trump’s rhetoric is particularly unwelcome in Beijing.
“Washington should stimulate Pyongyang’s desire to engage with the outside world and return to the international community,” China’s nationalist Global Times wrote in an editorial. “However, Washington only wants to heighten the sanctions and military threats against Pyongyang, which is adding fuel to the flames.”
The paper complained that United States has adopted a more hardline approach towards North Korea since Trump came to power, referencing comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this year that all options, including military options, were ultimately on the table.
It has also long underestimated the price North Korea is prepared to pay in pursuit of nuclear missiles, which the regime sees as essential to its survival, it argued.
The paper’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, issued two short videos this week warning that as long as the hostility between the United States and North Korea remains unresolved, North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons.
“When the U.S. fails to contain North Korea, it blames China for not handling it,” he said. “That is just foolish thinking, yet in the U.S. many people believe this to be logical. That’s just sad.”
It’s also dangerous, Hu argued, for the Washington to play a game of chicken with Pyongyang.
“There’s a Chinese saying: A man with nothing to lose doesn’t fear a man with something to lose,” he said. “So it’s best if Washington doesn’t try and engage in a battle of the wills with Pyongyang. They don’t scare easily.
Shirley Feng and Yang Liu contributed to this story.