The United States and China will work together to get nuclear-armed North Korea take “a different course”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Saturday, softening previous criticism of Beijing after talks with his Chinese counterpart.
China has been irritated at being repeatedly told by Washington to rein in North Korea’s surging nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, one of a series of hurdles in ties between the world’s two largest economies.
But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the talks with Tillerson as “candid, pragmatic and productive”. The two sides appeared to have made some progress or put aside differences on difficult issues, at least in advance of a planned summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump.
The language from Tillerson and his Chinese counterpart after talks in Beijing was notably conciliatory after a run-up in which US President Donald Trump accused China of doing nothing to control its rogue neighbour while Beijing blamed Washington for fuelling hostilities.
“I think we share a common view and a sense that tensions in the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level,” Tillerson said after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
On Friday, Tillerson issued the Trump administration’s starkest warning yet to North Korea, saying in Seoul that a military response would be “on the table” if Pyongyang took action to threaten South Korean and US forces.
Tillerson had said on Friday that any talks on North Korea could only take place after it began the process of unwinding its weapons programmes.
Meanwhile, the US on Saturday denied a report saying Tillerson opted not to have dinner with his South Korean counterparts on a diplomatic visit because of “fatigue”. The Korea Herald reported that Tillerson had “shortened diplomatic consultations and public events in Seoul”.
It added that his meetings with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se and Acting President Hwang Kyo-Ahn had been brief compared to those with Japanese officials on the previous leg of the tour.
However a US embassy official in Seoul on Saturday dismissed the account as “incorrect”, saying: “There was no dinner planned”.
A US official had said in Washington earlier this week that Tillerson may raise the prospect of imposing “secondary sanctions” on Chinese banks and other firms doing business with North Korea.
A former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, Tillerson will meet Xi on Sunday. North Korea had launched four ballistic missiles last week 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 programmes. But, China has called for a dual track approach, urging North Korea to suspend its tests and the US and S. Korea to suspend military drills, so both sides can return to talks.
China has also been infuriated by the deployment of the Thaad missile defence system in South Korea, which it says will extend into the country’s northeast and potentially track Chinese missile launches.