BEIJING — Secretary of State John Kerry lobbied China to lean harder on its Marxist ally North Korea, arguing Saturday that the North’s escalating belligerence threatens the entire Pacific region and the interests of its benefactor China.
He won a modest restatement of the shared goal of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and a public call from China’s foreign policy chief, Yang Jiechi, for a way out of the current tension “peacefully, through dialogue.” That was a clear warning to North Korea that its main economic and political protector does not want a new Asian war.
“People in the region understand what the balance of the power is in the situation,” Kerry said during a press conference closing his day of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials.
“Everybody is hoping that reasonableness will prevail.”
Kerry said he would not discuss specific promises or plans by China in dealing with its ally, saying China may or may not choose to reveal its program publicly.
But Kerry claimed a clear commitment between the United States and China to “bear down” together to reduce the risk of war or nuclear proliferation from North Korea.
He dangled the possibility that if North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons capability the United States might reverse military moves in the region that have unnerved China, including additional missile defenses in Guam and Japan.
China shares the U.S. view that a new missile launch from North Korea now would be “unwanted and unwarranted,” Kerry said, and he appealed openly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to “join in seeking a negotiated solution.”
That was a reference to possible new talks with North Korea nearly four years after international negotiations that included China and the United States collapsed. The United States and South Korea welcomed the prospect of talks under the right conditions, part of an effort this week to reduce tensions. China agreed to work with the United States on starting a new round of talks.
North Korea’s recent threatening moves could be a bid to raise the stakes for such talks, and Kerry was clearly leery of appearing too eager.
The United States and China agreed to follow up quickly on Saturday’s joint agreement, Kerry said. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey will visit China within weeks. Kerry’s deputy, William Burns, and intelligence agency officials will also come to Beijing soon to collaborate on North Korea, Kerry said.
“From this moment forward, we are committed to taking actions in order to make good on that goal,” Kerry said before a dinner with Yang. “We are determined to make that goal a reality. China and the United States must together take steps in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”
U.S. and Asian officials say China alone has the economic and political leverage with North Korea to make the case to Kim that he must step back from a confrontation that has been building for months.
“China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula,” Yang said.
The United States is trying to appeal to China’s self-interest, arguing that North Korea has become a liability instead of an asset, undermining the central Chinese goal of stability and making China look ineffectual. North Korea has defied Chinese warnings, including not to conduct a third nuclear test, and recent Chinese statements about the North reflect growing frustration and alarm.
“I think it’s clear to everybody in the world that no country in the world has as close a relationship or as significant an impact on the DPRK than China,” Kerry said Friday in Seoul, using the the initials of North Korea’s formal name.
China has prevented the collapse of impoverished North Korea with huge fuel subsidies, favorable trade arrangements and food aid for a nation unable to feed itself.
Its leverage over Pyongyang comes from that assistance, and from the two nations’ long-standing political alliance.
China backed North Korea during the Korean War and has long seen its de facto client state as a valuable buffer against U.S.-backed South Korea and the tens of thousands of U.S. forces stationed there.
The threat of conflict with North Korea is dominating Kerry’s first trip to Asia as secretary of state, overshadowing economic and trade issues at the heart of the gradually warming relationship between the United States and China.