US tries to use better China ties to press North Korea

Washington will host two of China's most senior officials Wednesday to deepen the dialogue between the world's greatest powers and test Beijing's willingness to turn the screw on North Korea.

In April US President Donald Trump (R) hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of efforts to persuade Beijing to turn the screw on North Korea
In April US President Donald Trump (R) hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of efforts to persuade Beijing to turn the screw on North Korea (AFP)

Washington will host two of China's most senior officials Wednesday to deepen the dialogue between the world's greatest powers and test Beijing's willingness to turn the screw on North Korea.

President Donald Trump's administration has had mixed results in its efforts to shake up US foreign policy, but officials feel they have made inroads with China that could prove productive.

In April, Trump hosted China's President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort, dropping his harsh campaign comments about Beijing and 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 ambassador.

Washington has some 28,000 troops deployed in South Korea and has a naval armada in the region
Washington has some 28,000 troops deployed in South Korea and has a naval armada in the region (Navy Office of Information/AFP)

But tensions remain -- particularly over China's building of artificial islands in disputed South China Sea waters -- and the White House dearly wants Beijing to rein in Kim Jong-Un's isolated North Korean regime.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will welcome State Councilor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, chief of Chinese army staff, to the State Department.

Susan Thornton, the US acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said this first edition of the new "US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue" 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, referring to efforts to halt Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Despite international condemnation and sanctions, North Korea has built a small nuclear arsenal and is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that could threaten Japan, South Korea and -- one-day -- even some US cities.

Washington has some 28,000 troops deployed in South Korea and has a naval armada in the region but has limited diplomatic or economic leverage over Kim.

Prisoner in a coma

Last week, what initially seemed a gesture of goodwill by Pyongyang -- the release of a detained US tourist -- turned sour when it was revealed that 22-year-old Otto Warmbier had been brain damaged and in a coma for some time.

China has tightened controls on trade in North Korean coal in apparent punishment for a series of missile tests
China has tightened controls on trade in North Korean coal in apparent punishment for a series of missile tests (AFP)

Warmbier died on Monday after returning to his hometown in Ohio.

Trump's White House made halting the nuclear threat its number one foreign policy priority, putting aside concerns over China's trade imbalance with the United States to seek Beijing's help in facing down Kim.

But while China has tightened controls on trade in North Korean coal, many experts say it is not ready to truly 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. But we hope that some of the other issues we're tackling, like military-to-military confidence-building measures -– we might make some progress there."

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, agreed that the few short weeks since the Mar-a-Lago summit was probably too short to be able to tell whether China is ready to isolate Kim.

If deterrence fails

He said the Pentagon would maintain lines of communication with the Chinese military to head off any escalation in the South China Sea -- but keep this separate from the diplomatic effort on North Korea.

"Secretary Tillerson has said that a key element of any success we would have in de-nuclearizing the peninsula would be the cooperation of China," he said.

"The military dimension today is in support of the diplomatic and economic effort led by the State Department and at the same time we have an effective posture in the region to deter KJU (Kim) and also to respond in the event that deterrence fails."