Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday he held “candid, pragmatic and productive” talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which included North Korea, Taiwan and bilateral trade. Tillerson said tensions with the North were at a “dangerous level” and that the U.S. would work with China on the issue.
He said both sides renewed their determination to convince North Korea, which has a fast-developing nuclear and ballistic missile program, to choose a better path.
Wang also told Tillerson that China and the United States are in “close communication” on arranging a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump. The remarks were reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency on Saturday.
Tillerson’s visit followed his remarks in South Korea on Friday in which he warned that pre-emptive military action against North Korea might be necessary if the threat from their weapons program reaches a level “that we believe requires action.”
China, the North’s biggest source of diplomatic support and economic assistance, has yet to directly respond to his remarks, although Beijing has called repeatedly for steps to reduce tensions.
Wang warned last week that the North and Washington and Seoul were like “two accelerating trains” headed at each other, with neither side willing to give way.
“The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” Wang told reporters. “Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply the brakes on both trains.”
Wang said North Korea could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, a proposal swiftly shot down by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who said Washington has to see “some sort of positive action” from North Korea before it can take leader Kim Jong Un seriously.
Tillerson’s comments in Seoul that “all of the options are on the table,” including possible military action, are likely to be deeply disconcerting to Beijing, which fears that a collapse of Kim’s regime would send waves of refugees into northeastern China and land South Korean and American forces on its border.
China has agreed reluctantly to U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea, while calling for renewed dialogue under the Beijing-sponsored six-nation format that broke down in 2009.
In a further sign of its frustration with Pyongyang, China last month banned imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year, potentially depriving Kim’s regime of a key source of foreign currency.
Past U.S. administrations have considered military force because of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, but rarely has that option been expressed so explicitly as by Tillerson.
North Korea has accelerated its weapons development, violating multiple Security Council resolutions without being deterred by sanctions. The North conducted two nuclear test explosions and 24 ballistic missile tests last year. Experts say it could have a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the U.S. within a few years.
China has stridently opposed the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korea, saying its X-band radar can peer deep into China to monitor flights and rocket launches. The U.S. says it’s a system focused on North Korea. China sees it as a threat to its own security.
Tillerson’s visit to Beijing is the final stop on his three-nation swing through Northeast Asia, which began in Japan. State Department officials have described it as a “listening tour” as the administration seeks a coherent North Korea policy, well-coordinated with its Asian partners.
Tillerson said Saturday that the U.S. wanted positive ties based on “nonconfrontation, no conflict and mutual respect.”
He is expected to discuss with China its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, including its building of islands atop coral reefs, complete with airstrips and military installations.
During his confirmation hearings in January, Tillerson compared China’s island-building and deployment of military assets to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and suggested China’s access to the islands should not be allowed.