BEIJING — China tried to cool heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula on Wednesday, proposing that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to major military exercises between the US and South Korean forces.
Such concessions could lead to talks aimed at a lasting settlement that would end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at a news conference in Beijing. The alternative to talks, he said, would be an increasingly perilous standoff that threatened the entire region.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way,” Wang said. “The question is: Are both sides really prepared for a head-on collision?”
Developments this week have abruptly escalated regional tensions over the isolated North’s nuclear arms development. After North Korea’s latest missile launch Monday, the United States and South Korea began deploying an anti-missile system that China considers a threat to its own security. Beijing accused the United States of risking a new arms race in the region.
At the same time, the North is in a diplomatic standoff with another Asian country, Malaysia, stemming from the February killing of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s estranged half brother, in Kuala Lumpur. On Tuesday, Pyongyang — angered by a police investigation that has named several North Koreans as suspects — said that no Malaysians living in North Korea would be allowed to leave the country and Malaysia quickly responded in kind.
On Wednesday, Wang said the priority in the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program was now “to flash the red light and apply brakes.” China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal “can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the negotiating table,” he said.
It was far from clear the idea would gain traction. North Korea made a similar offer in 2015 that went nowhere. Neither the Japanese nor South Korean governments rushed to endorse China’s latest proposal.
Wang’s pitch was China’s latest attempt to regain the initiative on the nuclear issue, which has bedeviled Beijing’s efforts to stay friends with both North and South Korea and prove itself a mature regional power broker.
“The current situation is a challenge for the Chinese government’s diplomacy,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University in Beijing who specializes in North Korea. “The situation in the East Asian region is increasingly complicated, and the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear missile issue is increasingly slim,” he said.
Reining in North Korea has also become a focus for the Trump administration’s dealings with China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Japan, South Korea, and China starting next week for talks focusing on “the advancing nuclear and missile threat” from North Korea, the State Department said.
North Korea’s weapons advancements have reached a point where “we do need to look at other alternatives,” Mark C. Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, told reporters Tuesday in Washington. “And that’s part of what this trip is about, that we’re going to talk to our allies and partners in the region to try to generate a new approach to North Korea.”
But bringing the countries into agreement over initial steps toward peace will not be easy, especially while China is also in a deepening dispute with South Korea and the Trump administration. At the same news conference where he laid out his proposal, Wang stuck to China’s fierce opposition to the missile defense system the United States began assembling in South Korea this week, known as THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The Chinese government says the system goes far beyond its declared purpose of warding off potential attacks by North Korea, and could undermine China’s own military security. US and South Korean officials say that is untrue and that China should instead focus on halting North Korea’s threats.
US officials, and many Chinese experts, have grown skeptical that North Korea would ever seriously contemplate giving up its nuclear weapons.