The Chinese government has changed its approach to North Korea and taken a tougher line out of frustration with Pyongyang, according to Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia official until last month.
"The most important new ingredient [in the North Korea crisis] has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit. That they are going to have to be much clearer and much more direct with Pyongyang that what Pyongyang is doing is undermining Chinese security," Campbell told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies Thursday.
"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. You've seen it at the U.N., you've seen it in our private conversations ... I don't think that subtle shift can be lost on Pyongyang," he said. "It's not in their strategic interest to alienate every country that surrounds them. I think they have succeeded in undermining their trust and confidence in Beijing."
In the latest apparent sign of Chinese discontent, Beijing recently rejected a North Korean request to send a diplomat envoy to Pyongyang, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday.
China has long considered North Korea a useful check against a united, pro-American Korean Peninsula. But Chinese frustration with Beijing could eventually lead to a more dramatic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would change the state of play in Northeast Asia, according to Campbell.
"It's very clear [to China]: If this is a buffer state, what is it good for?" he said.
The White House has promoted a careful dual message throughout this crisis: The United States takes North Korean provocations seriously but doesn't see North Korea's actual military moves as significant.
"They're doing that in a way so that we don't have a set of circumstances where things escalate beyond a point where it can be effectively managed," Campbell explained.
Meanwhile, there are feelers out that might pave the way for a conversation with North Korea that might provide a way out of the crisis.
"Subtle messages have been sent in every corner and in every venue that the door remains open to dialogue," Campbell said. "We have to be prepared to be open to dialogue."
Campbell also revealed that there is one senior administration who prefers the term "pivot" rather than "rebalance" to describe the shift in U.S. attention toward Asia -- President Barack Obama.
Campbell said the initial use of the term "pivot" was later replaced with the term "rebalance" because some misinterpreted the word "pivot" to mean a turn away from Europe, which was not intended as part of the policy.
"I actually think the better terminology is ‘rebalance,'" Campbell said. "And of course, initially the response was very clear from the NSS [National Security Staff in the White House] that really the term that is appropriate is ‘rebalance,' so those of us who use ‘pivot' were sent to reeducation camps and works in the fields."
But White House aides' effort to erase the use of the word "pivot" was ultimately thwarted by their own boss -- Obama.
"The irony of this, after all of this reeducation, it turns out: Who is the person who actually likes the term and the concept of the pivot?" Campbell said. "The president of the United States."