China is likely to express its anger at being told to rein in nuclear-armed North Korea when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Beijing on Saturday, his first visit to the country since taking office last month.
Beijing is expected to call on Washington to share responsibility in lessening tensions in the region, while strongly opposing this month’s deployment of a sophisticated US missile defence system in South Korea.
Tillerson issued the Trump administration’s starkest warning yet to North Korea on Friday, saying that a military response would be “on the table” if Pyongyang took action to threaten South Korean and US forces.
He was speaking in South Korea, the second leg of an Asia visit that has also taken him to Japan.
In Beijing, he may raise the prospect of imposing “secondary sanctions” on Chinese banks and other firms doing business with North Korea in defiance of sanctions, a US official told Reuters in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
US President Donald Trump said in a tweet on Friday that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and accused China, Pyongyang’s neighbour and only major ally, of doing little to resolve the crisis over the North’s weapons programs.
Tillerson however is also expected to firm up a trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United States next month for his first summit with Trump, and could choose to tone down any differences between the world’s largest economies, at least for now.
A former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, Tillerson will meet China’s two top diplomats on Saturday and Xi on Sunday.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated that talks were the best way to resolve the problems of the Korean peninsula.
“As a close neighbour of the peninsula, China has even more reason than any other country to care about the situation,” she told a briefing.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches since the beginning of last year.
Last week, it launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.
Washington has been pressing Beijing to do more to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
China has called for a dual track approach, urging North Korea to suspend its tests and the United States and South Korea to suspend military drills, so both sides can return to talks.
Beijing has been irritated by suggestions it has not been doing enough, with the official People’s Daily on Friday denouncing what it said was Washington and Seoul’s “blind worship” of sanctions and pressure.
“There has been a narrative in the West suggesting that China holds the key to the North Korea nuclear issue. That is a misguided statement,” said Wang Dong, associate professor of international studies at China’s elite Peking University.
“The bottom line is that the DPRK is not a puppet regime. We do not control them, and we have strongly opposed North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons from the very beginning,” he said, referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said on Friday that it was in China’s interests to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
“The North Korean nuclear issue is caused by (the) Washington-Pyongyang confrontation. China has no obligation to shoulder all the responsibilities,” it said in an editorial.
China has also been infuriated by the deployment of the THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, missile defence system in South Korea, which it says will both harm China’s own security and do nothing to ease tensions.
China says the system’s powerful radar will extend into the country’s northeast and potentially track Chinese missile launches, and maybe even intercept them. Russia also opposes THAAD, for the same reasons.