Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday wrapped up a whirlwind visit to China with pledges of a deeper partnership on energy, economic and environmental projects, but no real breakthrough on his top agenda item: North Korea.
Analysts who’ve monitored China’s foreign policy for years said that Kerry’s description of his talks with the Chinese as “constructive and forward-leaning” skirted the fact that apart from some grumbling in local media, China didn’t significantly shift position on North Korea – and won’t, they said, as long as it’s stuck with the risk that reining in its defiant client state could lead to a regime collapse with ripple effects across the region.
“The Chinese always come down in the same place: they’re conflict averse. Their goal is not to punish North Korea and they’re not carrying out U.S. foreign policy. They’re carrying out Chinese foreign policy,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University in California.
Kerry left Beijing with no joint statement from the Chinese warning North Korea to cease its threats; indeed, Chinese officials wouldn’t even mention the country by name as they alluded to “challenges we face on the Korean peninsula.” That’s a delicate way of putting that the entire region is bracing for yet another North Korean missile launch, perhaps as soon as Monday, as experts debate whether it’s months or years before Pyongyang has the capability of delivering a nuclear warhead atop a missile.
As for the “tough message” that State Department officials have said Kerry would urge Beijing to send to North Korea, there was no evidence of that happening, and analysts said they wouldn’t count on it – the Chinese are worried about pushing too hard on Kim Jong Un, an inexperienced and capricious young dictator whose only end game appears to be regime survival. The situation is just too precarious, analysts said, for China to leverage its huge aid and investments in exchange for, say, a return to multilateral negotiations with the goal of Kim scrapping his nuclear program.
“American expectations may be too high,” said Robert Ross, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Boston College. “Here we’re asking for greater Chinese economic pressure from North Korea at the very time when China is most concerned about stability in North Korea.”
Ross said China could find other ways to satisfy the Americans’ request for help amid the simmering tensions. The country’s new president, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, already appears to be testing a new Chinese diplomacy, inching closer to Western powers in order to further isolate Pyongyang. Kerry’s stop in Beijing, to be followed soon with a trip by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, surely unsettles Kim, Ross said.
“They’re making it clear that they’re holding in-depth constructive talks with the U.S. on North Korea,” Ross said, adding that the hope is to bring about at least “a constraining effect on North Korea.”
But low-key Chinese diplomacy wasn’t what the State Department had in mind when Kerry embarked on his first trip to Asia since becoming secretary, arriving in Seoul on Friday, traveling to Beijing on Saturday and then arriving later Sunday in Tokyo.
State Department officials, briefing reporters traveling with Kerry, had called the Beijing stop the crux of U.S. policy on North Korea.
As the pariah state’s closest ally, State Department officials had hoped China would join in the West’s public criticism of North Korea. China must decide, officials said in advance of arriving in Beijing, whether North Korea can continue to act with impunity by defying United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban it from testing missiles or developing nuclear weapons. “Clearly there are strong signals being sent,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
Analysts said that the visit confirmed for them that expecting China to do more at such a tenuous time is unrealistic. At most, they said, perhaps the Chinese would start inspecting vessels and planes that pass through their territory toward North Korea, a move that’s part of the most recent U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea that China supported.
There was no tough talk during Kerry’s visit.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean peninsula,” State Councilor Yang Jiechi said after meeting with Kerry. “We maintain that the issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation.”