US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hold a press conference after talks with Chinese diplomatic and defense chiefs at the State Department in Washington on June 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hold a press conference after talks with Chinese diplomatic and defense chiefs at the State Department in Washington on June 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Ever since assuming power as president of the United States, Donald Trump has consistently opposed North Korea’s rising nuclear ambitions. Carrying ahead this momentum, the US pressed China to exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang during a round of high-level talks in Washington on Wednesday with a view to restraining North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

As Trump is particularly worried over Beijing’s non-cooperative attitude toward the US policies over North Korea because it has not fully endorsed Washington’s strategic policy of containing Pyongyang’s irresponsible behavior, which is in absolute contravention to international law and the prevailing norms of common courtesy, the meeting of top US and Chinese diplomats and defense chiefs assumes considerable significance.

The meeting was held a day after Trump said Chinese efforts to use its leverage with Pyongyang had failed, thereby raising fresh doubts about his administration’s upcoming strategy for countering the threat from North Korea. Further, he appears still to be doubtful about Beijing’s full support for US policies on North Korea.

As well, because of Seoul’s continuing association with Washington and rising US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing looks committed to containing the American influence in the region. Hence China continues to empower North Korea with all possible means to continue disturbing the already tense and volatile environment of the region, so that Beijing may remain an unquestioned and predominant hegemonic power.

Added to this controversy is the death of American university student Otto Warmbier this week after his release from 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea, which has further complicated Trump’s approach as he looks firm and ready to opt even for risky action against Pyongyang.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: “We reiterated to China that they have a diplomatic responsibility to exert much greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime if they want to prevent further escalation in the region.”

Mattis vowed to “continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies” against Pyongyang’s offensives, as the Kim Jong-un regime works earnestly to develop a nuclear-tipped missile with the  capacity to target even the United States.

Whereas the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes are seen as far too risky for now, Trump’s aides are stressing only economic and diplomatic pressure as the safest option, because dealing with an arbitrary and cynical autocrat is not an easy job.

While US officials stressed the need for agreement as regards North Korea’s total denuclearization, the discussion also dealt with China’s sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Washington  bitterly opposing Beijing’s ongoing endeavors of militarization of islands in the strategic waterway.

Tillerson urged China to help crack down on all illicit activities carried out by Pyongyang that financially support its nuclear and missile programs, and said the Chinese had agreed their companies “should not do business” with sanctioned North Korean entities.

Tillerson further stressed the need to choke off funding sources including money laundering, labor exports and computer hacking. “Countries around the world and in the UN Security Council are joining in this effort, and we hope China will do [its] part as well,” he said.

Against this backdrop, while Tillerson mentioned Trump’s likely state visit to China this year, Mattis said both sides agreed to expand military-to-military ties, signaling the new US administration’s determination to continue efforts to improve relations between the world’s two largest economies, despite continuing frustration over North Korea.

Indeed, North Korea topped the agenda at the newly established Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, which paired Tillerson and Mattis with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, chief of the joint staff of the People’s Liberation Army.

Only time will tell whether or not China succumbs to the US pressure, because immediately after being elected president, Trump had to eat humble pie by making a complete U-turn vis-à-vis Beijing’s tough and extremely firm stand on the one-China principle with respect to Taiwan and also its covert support to North Korea.

But the likely summit between the two global giants this year will be very significant, as it may chalk out broad contours for revival of the global economy as well as the war against terror, besides helping resolve some of the most pressing issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection, protection of human rights, settlement of refugees – including North Koreans – and dealing with rogue states, wherein positive results may come out in the interest of the humanity because nothing is beyond human endeavor.

Sudhanshu Tripathi

Sudhanshu Tripathi is a professor of political science at Uttar Pradesh Rajarshi Tandon Open University. His book NAM and India was published in 2012 and he co-authored the textbook Political Concepts (In Hindi) in 2001.

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