China proposed halting U.S. military exercises with South Korea as part of a nuclear deal with North Korea during high-level talks at the State Department on Wednesday, according to U.S. officials.
The Chinese raised what Beijing calls "dual suspension" of U.S.-South Korean war games and North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests at the first meeting of the administration's Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, said two officials.
The American side rejected the idea of canceling U.S. military exercises as a tactic tried in the past that was unsuccessful in convincing the North Koreans to give up their nuclear arms programs.
The talks came a day after President Trump cast a shadow over U.S.-China ties by suggesting China had failed to rein in North Korea, a fraternal communist state that maintains close military relations with Beijing.
"While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out," Trump tweeted. "At least I know China tried!"
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang defended China's efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear and missile challenge. Geng asserted the problem in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats does not "lie with the Chinese side," he said.
"China has put up the dual track approach and the initiative of ‘suspension for suspension,' as well as the proposal to strengthen the effort for both non-proliferation and promoting peace talks," Geng said during a press briefing Wednesday.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea were heightened following the death on Monday of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in North Korea during a visit, and later released in a coma suffering brain damage.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who led the U.S. side to the talks, were not asked about the Chinese dual suspension proposal during a press briefing after the talks.
Both officials provided a general outline of the talks that were led on the Chinese side by State Counselor Yang Jiechi and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
In addition to North Korea, the two sides discussed China's militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea, international terrorism, and U.S. concerns about Chinese human rights abuses.
"The most acute threat in the region today is posed by the DPRK," Tillerson said, using the acronym for North Korea.
"We both call for complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and we call on the DPRK to halt its illegal nuclear weapons program and its ballistic missile test as stipulated in the U.N. Security Council resolutions."
Tillerson said the Chinese agreed that U.S. and Chinese companies "should not do business" with North Korean companies linked to missile and nuclear programs.
"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," Tillerson told reporters.
Mattis said the talks were a chance to hold "philosophical-level discussions" aimed at producing "a constructive and a results-oriented relationship with China."
Mattis said he is committed to improving U.S.-China defense ties aimed at reducing the risk of conflict, and keeping open communications channels.
"At the same time, we do manage our differences where we have them, and while competition between our nations is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable," he said.
Mattis indicated the death of the American student had hardened U.S. policy toward North Korea.
Asked if Trump is extremely angry at North Korea and that China has failed to help, Mattis said president was reflecting "the American people's view of North Korea right now."
"We see a young man go over there healthy and with a minor act of mischief, come home dead basically, die shortly, immediately after he gets here," Mattis said.
"There's no way that we can look at a situation like this with any kind of understanding," he added. "This goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility towards any human being."
On South China Sea, Mattis said the dialogue as helped identify areas of common interest with China while dealing with what he called "disconnects, where our understanding of the problem is very different from theirs."
Two of the key players who helped organize the talks, Pentagon policymaker David Helvey and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Susan Thornton are both holdovers from the Obama administration. Both did not return emails seeking comment.
Halting U.S. military exercises with South Korea as part of a North Korea deal likely would be opposed by the U.S. military commander there, Army Gen. Vincent Brooks.
The U.S. military maintains around 23,000 troops in South Korea and holds two large-scale annual exercises, Foal Eagle and Ulchi Focus. U.S. Forces Korea spokesmen have said the exercises are needed for both nations' forces to be ready for a conflict with North Korea on short notice.
North Korea routinely denounces the exercises as preparations for war.
"What it takes to go from the condition we're in at this moment to hostilities again is literally the matter of a decision on North Korea's side to say ‘fire,'" Brooks told CBS' "60 Minutes."
The Chinese dual suspension proposal was first raised in March by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and again by People's Liberation Army officers at the Shangri La security talks in Singapore earlier this month that were attended by Mattis.
Critics of the proposal say it is part of an effort by China to make it appear Beijing is a neutral third party in the North Korea dispute. Despite reported differences, China remains one of North Korea's most significant military, economic, and political partners.
Former State Department official John Tkacik, a China affairs specialist, said the dual suspension proposal is a Chinese ruse.
"Double suspension is a clever Chinese negotiating proposal to stop U.S.-South Korean military cooperation that China believes undermines their own strategic leverage over South Korea, while not giving up anything in return," Tkacik said.
"North Korea would abide by it only until it has another nuclear device or missile delivery system to test, and then it will test, deal or no deal. Then what?"
Tkacik, the former State Department official, said it remains to be seen if Trump will be able to use his negotiating prowess to reach a deal with China on North Korea.
Tkacik said Trump should counter China's dual suspension ploy by threatening to re-introduce American nuclear weapons to South Korea.
"The U.S. removed nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1991 to convince North Korea not to move forward with its nuclear weapons programs," he said. "If President Reagan were alive today, he would send those weapons back to the region, and offer to negotiate a ‘mutual, permanent, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization' from a position of strength."
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said the Chinese suspension proposal should be rejected.
American officials should "remind their Chinese counterparts there is no moral equivalence between U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises, and North Korea's provocative and dangerous nuclear weapon development and robust ballistic missile testing," Fanell said.
"Any compromise on this strategic position will simply support Beijing's strategic goal of driving the United States military off the Korean Peninsula," he added. "Not only will this endanger our allies in South Korea and Japan, but will also not solve the threat of North Korea being able to launch a nuclear tipped ballistic missile at the United States."
Trump signaled to Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the summit meeting in Florida in April that unless China does more to rein in North Korea, the United States would be prepared to take unilateral action.
During the Mar-a-Lago summit, Trump ordered the firing of 39 Tomahawk cruise missiles from a destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea against a Syrian airfield—a subtle message to the Chinese leader.
Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state, told reporters recently that "China is still a leading, kind of facilitator for North Koreans' economic activity."
"And so we think that it's very important that China do more to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions," she said.
An editorial in the Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper called Trump's criticism of China a "trap."
"The U.S. always blames China for not doing enough when Washington is at a loss over the North Korean nuclear issue," the newspaper said.
"The conflicting parties on the Korean Peninsula are North Korea and the U.S.-South Korea alliance. China's forces have long withdrawn from the peninsula. It is absurd to expect China to solve the longstanding contradiction between the two sides."
"The argument that China must be responsible for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile activity is a trap for the Sino-US relationship," the editorial said. "We hope Trump and his team are wise enough to avoid this trap."
UPDATE 6/23/17, 8:37pm: This story has been updated to include responses from the Pentagon.