Even as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to signal a softening of the US stance towards North Korea during today’s UN Security Council session, he came slap up against the reality of China’s refusal to pull the coals out of the fire for the US on the North Korean issue.
This came in the form of strong words from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who Reuters reports telling the UN Security Council session the following
The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side. It is necessary to put aside the debate over who should take the first step and stop arguing who is right and who is wrong. Now is the time to seriously consider resuming talks
This came hours after similarly tough language from Wang Yi at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, which the People’s Daily – the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party – reports in this way
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a tough position on the North Korea issue on Wednesday, saying that war on the Korean Peninsula is absolutely unacceptable.
Wang made the remarks in a press conference after a Sino-German dialogue on cooperation with Sigmar Gabriel, the German vice-chancellor and foreign minister in Germany.
“Of course we believe that the continued nuclear tests violate UN Security Council resolutions, but carrying out non stop military exercises around the Korean Peninsula is clearly not in line with the spirit of Council resolutions,” Wang Yi said. He added that it is imperative to return to dialogue as soon as possible.
Wang Yi said that the goal of the Chinese side is firm; that is, to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establish a mechanism for peace on the Peninsula. He said China is willing to continue to play a constructive role to that end, but warned of the dangers of the situation. “As for the likelihood of war, even a one percent possibility of war breaking out is not acceptable,” Wang Yi said. “The Korean Peninsula is not the Middle East. If war breaks out, the consequences would be unimaginable.”
China has drawn a red line for the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea, that war on the Korean Peninsula is not allowed and that all consequences would be borne by the relevant countries should war break out.
These words, which put the onus of avoiding war in the Korean Peninsula as much on Washington as on Pyongyang, and which speak of US military exercises and military movements in and around the Korean Peninsula as being as dangerous as North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests, will infuriate Washington.
Underlining Wang Yi’s words, and confirming that they carry the full authority of China’s leadership, is a strongly worded commentary in the People’s Daily. This too appears to put as much blame for the current crisis on Washington as on Pyongyang
The DPRK disrupted the nuclear non-proliferation regime and went against resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea pose a military threat to the DPRK, and seek further sanctions to and isolation for it.
More to the point, the commentary in the People’s Daily now sets out clearly what China’s proposal to end the crisis is
Force will lead nowhere; dialogue and negotiations remain the only solution. It is imperative that all relevant parties consider China’s proposal: the suspension of nuclear tests by the DPRK and the termination of joint military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea.
More strong words and military confrontations will benefit neither the U.S. nor the DPRK. If both sides can send positive signals to each other, the issue might just have a chance at resolution.
(bold italics added)
In other words, far from being willing to consider further sanctions against North Korea, what China wants is the US to engage North Korea forthwith in direct talks and to suspend immediately its joint military exercises with South Korea in return for North Korea ceasing to engage in any further nuclear tests.
US-South Korean joint exercises have been ongoing for decades. The US has consistently rejected North Korean demands to end them. China however is now formally and publicly backing those North Korean demands.
That Tillerson was dismayed by Wang Yi’s tough words is confirmed by his response as reported by Reuters
We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea, we will not reward their violations of past resolutions, we will not reward their bad behavior with talks
Wang Yi however received strong support from his Russian ally, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov reported by Reuters to have addressed the UN Security Council as follows
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov cautioned on Friday that the use of force would be “completely unacceptable.”
“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing has led to a situation where the whole world seriously is now wondering whether there’s going to be a war or not,” he told the council. “One ill thought out or misinterpreted step could lead to the most frightening and lamentable consequences.”
Gatilov said North Korea felt threatened by regular joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises and the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula.
China and Russia both also repeated their opposition to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system in South Korea. Gatilov described it as a “destabilizing effort,” while Wang said it damaged trust among the parties on the North Korea issue.
These arguments between Tillerson, Wang Yi and Gatilov in the UN Security Council, and the toughly worded commentary in the People’s Daily, illustrate the folly of the confrontational course the Trump administration has followed towards North Korea over the last few weeks.
Instead of isolating North Korea from China, and getting China to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, China – exactly as I predicted – is blaming the US as much as North Korea for creating the crisis, and is not only resisting US demands for further sanctions, but is actually increasing its support for North Korea.
The commentary in the People’s Daily did notice the change in Washington’s stance from threatening war towards seeking a diplomatic solutions following the White House briefing of the Senate on Wednesday
[D]espite the existence of tensions on the peninsula, a war is by no means imminent. Although U.S. President Donald Trump and his government did blast the DPRK for its nuclear program and ballistic missiles, and although the DPRK fought back with strong words and actions, there are still encouraging signs. In recent days, the DPRK hasn’t conducted any new nuclear tests. And on April 26, the U.S. secretary of state, secretary of defense and director of national intelligence made a joint statement, claiming that negotiation is still on the table.
Tillerson’s words at the UN Security Council session show that the issue is no longer whether the US is prepared to talk to North Korea – as I have discussed previously, his words clearly show that he realises the US has no choice but to do so – but rather the Trump administration’s need after all its bragging and bellicose talk of the last few weeks for some fig-leaf in the form of sanctions from China in order to save face before it does so.
It seems that the Chinese – furious at being pressured by the US, and at having President Xi Jinping’s words continuously misrepresented by the Trump administration – are for the moment in no mood to provide this fig-leaf.
As for the North Koreans, the fact that they sense that the advantage has passed to them is shown by one telling fact: their ambassador – obviously by pre-arrangement with the Chinese – didn’t bother to turn up to the UN Security Council session today. With China’s support for North Korea hardening, the North Koreans obviously decided that his presence at the session wasn’t needed, and that his presence would only cause embarrassment to their Chinese ally.