WASHINGTON -- North Korea's latest outburst of nuclear and military threats has given the United States a rare opportunity to build bridges with China -- a potential silver lining to the simmering crisis.
The architect of the administration's Asia policy described a subtle change in Chinese thinking as a result of Pyongyang's recent nuclear tests, rocket launches and abandonment of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 war with South Korea.
Pyongyang has taken similar actions in the past, prompting Washington to step up military readiness in the region to soothe allies South Korea and Japan. But in an unusual rebuke last week, Beijing called North Korea's moves "regrettable" -- amounting to a slap from Pyongyang's strongest economic and diplomatic supporter.
"They, I think, recognize that the actions that North Korea has taken in recent months and years are in fact antithetical to their own national security interests," former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a panel Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy" toward North Korea, said Campbell, who retired in February as the administration's top diplomat in East Asia and the Pacific region. "I don't think that provocative path can be lost on Pyongyang . . . I think that they have succeeded in undermining trust and confidence in Beijing."
"The issue here is to continue to recognize that the threats we share are common, and the approaches are more likely to be more effective if we can work well together," she told reporters Thursday.
For now, the crisis has given new rise to the White House's decision to bolster U.S. economic and security in the region that for years was sidelined as a priority by war and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Much of the policy has centered on China -- both in strengthening diplomatic ties and economic trade. But China has been suspicious about the U.S. entreaty, which it sees as economic competition on its own turf.
Now, North Korea's threats have focused China and the United States on a regional security threat instead of an economic rivalry.
China historically has been lax on enforcing international sanctions against the North. But in what the United States took as a positive development, China signed on to stiffer measures in the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions announced after North Korea's February nuclear test, and there are initial indications that it's increasing cargo inspections.
Whether this will lead to concrete steps that will crimp North Korea's weapons' programs and illicit trade in arms, remains to be seen.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security and a senior State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, said Beijing also is helping set up back-channel negotiations with North Korea to ease the tensions.
But ultimately, he said, the United States isn't likely to succeed in winning China over as a reliable partner against North Korea beyond the current flare-up.
"There is an opportunity for the U.S. and China to renew cooperation on a North Korean strategy," Cronin said. "But we can't put all of our hopes on that cooperation, because it's been less than satisfying in the past. There are limits to how far China and the U.S. have coincidental interests with regard to North Korea."
Asia expert and peace activist Hyun Lee agreed that Washington will be unlikely to turn Beijing against North Korea in the long run. But she said China does not want to see a stepped-up U.S. military presence in the region, and certainly doesn't want a war on its borders.