Top US officials began talks with their Chinese counterparts Wednesday seeking a tougher line on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — after President Donald Trump implied that Beijing had already tried and failed.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sat down with top Beijing diplomat State Councilor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, chief of Chinese army staff, at the State Department.
US officials said the first and main item on the agenda would be persuading China to lean on Kim Jong-Un’s regime in Pyongyang to halt its provocative missile and nuclear plans.
But, just hours before the talks began, Trump sent a tweet implying that China’s President Xi Jinping had come up short.
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” Trump tweeted.
Trump did not elaborate on what might happen next if China, by far the North’s most important trading and diplomatic partner, is out of ideas.
And in Beijing, officials insisted that they have not given up hope of influencing Pyongyang and that the problem is not China’s alone.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China was not the “focus and the crux” of the crisis.
“In order to resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, China has been making unremitting efforts and we have been playing an important and constructive role,” Geng said.
In April, Trump hosted Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, glossing over his harsh campaign comments about Beijing and — after apparently successful talks — hailing the dawn of “a very, very great relationship.”
Last month, Beijing and Washington signed a limited deal to open new markets for each other’s exports, and a long-standing friend of the Chinese leadership, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, was confirmed as US ambassador.
But tensions remain — particularly over China’s building of artificial islands in disputed South China Sea waters, and Washington’s strong desire to get Beijing to rein in Pyongyang.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that the first meeting of the new “US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue” on Wednesday would focus on North Korea.
“We continue to urge China to exert its unique leverage as North Korea’s largest trading partner, including by fully implementing all UN Security Council sanctions,” she said.
Despite international condemnation and sanctions, North Korea has a small nuclear arsenal and is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that threaten Japan and South Korea — and one day could even hit some US cities.
Washington has some 28,000 troops deployed in South Korea and a naval armada in the region.
Prisoner in a coma
Last week, the release of a detained US tourist in what initially seemed a gesture of goodwill by Pyongyang turned sour when it was revealed that 22-year-old Otto Warmbier had been in a coma for some time.
Warmbier died on Monday after returning to his hometown in Ohio, triggering outrage in the United States.
Trump has made halting the nuclear threat his number one foreign policy priority, putting aside concerns over trade and currency manipulation to seek Beijing’s help in facing down Kim.
China has tightened controls on trade in North Korean coal, but many doubt it will fully enforce any sanctions that might threaten the stability of its unpredictable neighbor.
“We’re going to be focusing, as I said, on particularly on the urgent threat posed by North Korea, and we expect that that will take some time,” Thornton said.
“We don’t expect that we’ll resolve that problem on Wednesday.”