BEIJING — Secretary of State John Kerry flew to China on Saturday and offered a concession on missile defense meant to elicit China’s help in dealing with an increasingly recalcitrant and nuclear armed North Korea.
In a news conference after meetings with China’s top leaders, Kerry said the United States would reduce its missile defenses in Asia if North Korea abandoned its nuclear weapons program.
Kerry’s overture appeared aimed at addressing Chinese concerns that North Korea’s provocative actions were leading the United States to build up military strength in the region as China is boosting its own influence there.
‘‘On missile defense, we discussed absolutely why we have taken the steps that we have taken,’’ Kerry said, referring to efforts the United States is taking to defend Guam, Hawaii, and the United States’ allies in Asia against a potential North Korean missile attack. The United States has dispatched two ships capable of missile defense and said it would speed up land-based missile defenses for Guam.
‘‘Now obviously if the threat disappears — i.e. North Korea denuclearizes — the same imperative does not exist at that point of time for us to have that kind of robust forward leaning posture of defense,’’ he added. ‘‘It would be our hope in the long run, or better yet in short run, that we can address that.’’
Kerry’s offer to cut back on the newly fortified missile defense appeared to be part of a diplomatic strategy to get China, the North’s only true ally, to do what it has long resisted — to crack down hard enough on Pyongyang that its leaders will give up an increasingly sophisticated nuclear program.
In the past China has worried that any move to destabilize the North would lead to a collapse of the regime and deliver the entire peninsula to the United States’ sphere of influence, possibly bringing US troops in South Korea closer to its border.
China remains a linchpin to the Obama administration’s policy of holding a tough line on Pyongyang, a reversal from the past. Previous administrations used aid to mollify the North and gain concessions on its nuclear program, only to see the North’s promises evaporate once the aid had been delivered.
Kerry said the Chinese shared the US goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, although he declined to say what steps China said it would take to accomplish it.
Even if China were to take a harsher stance, North Korea might not fall into line. Under the new leader, Kim Jong Un, the North has snubbed China several times, including refusing Chinese entreaties to cancel its recent nuclear test that set off tensions on the Peninsula.
Kerry’s remarks are likely to stir concern among staunch advocates of missile defense in the United States, who also see antimissile systems as a means of responding to China’s growing military might.
At the core of the issue is the United States’ inability to draw North Korea into a serious round of nuclear talks. North Korea’s apparent determination to expand its nuclear weapons program and the US demand that it commit up front to eventually relinquishing its nuclear arms have raised the question of whether there is even any basis for negotiations.
‘‘China has an enormous ability to help make a difference here,’’ Kerry said Friday during a stop in Seoul, adding that he had planned in meetings with Chinese leaders to ‘‘lay out a path ahead that can defuse this tension.’’
The Chinese stance on North Korea has never been a simple one, though. On the one hand, the Chinese prize stability and are eager to avoid a crisis on the Korean Peninsula that would spawn a flood of refugees or prompt the United States to shift more forces to the Pacific.
After Kim’s recent boasts about North Korea’s ability to carry out military strikes, the Obama administration decided to speed up the deployment of missile defenses to Guam and sent Aegis cruisers equipped with antimissile systems into the region. It also conducted a military exercise in which B-2 bombers flew to South Korea before returning to their base in the United States, and it briefly deployed two F-22 fighters in South Korea as well.
On the other hand, that same Chinese concern for stability has meant that it is reluctant to take steps that would undermine the North Korean government’s hold on power and eliminate a friendly buffer between Chinese territory and South Korean and US forces.
In an effort to solicit China’s help, Kerry met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Wang said at a dinner with Kerry on Saturday that China was committed to ‘‘the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula.’’
The Chinese foreign minister also stressed that the ‘‘issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation.’’