Replete with surprise sightings of Kim’s bulletproof train and an elaborate banquet, experts say the secret Beijing visit was a carefully choreographed message from China to the United States and South Korea, who are jointly focused on achieving Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
Forced Into A Corner
The summit between Kim and Xi follows the extraordinary announcement earlier this month that Trump and Kim had agreed to meet by May to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The overture was a stunning change in posture after months of escalating threats and warmongering between Washington and Pyongyang, and was maneuvered by the diplomatic gymnastics of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Since his election in last May, Moon has made a fierce effort to prevent any kind of military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. The South Koreans continuously sought relations with the North and facilitated messages between Pyongyang and Washington. Moon has organized an inter-Korean summit with Kim in late April, and proposed last week that he and Trump could even hold a three-way summit with Kim if their respective talks with the North Korean leader go well.
China has watched these events unfold from the sidelines with increasing “exclusion anxiety,” according to Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a research institute in Washington.
“China probably didn’t see many other options than to reach out to North Korea. It was almost forced into a corner,” she said.
“In the past, China has seen the North Korean nuclear issue as a form of leverage in its relationship with the United States, and it has extracted a lot of bargaining power out of that issue with the Americans. It has seen itself as an integral ― if not the central ― player in this issue. It does not want to be reduced to being a bystander.”
China is afraid that its exclusion from international efforts to denuclearize North Korea could have broader implications down the road, Yun continued. The Chinese fear that a rapprochement between Kim and Trump could diminish China’s influence over the Korean peninsula, facilitate the unification of the peninsula and ultimately create a U.S. military ally along the Chinese border.
“It’s a far-fetched possibility, but nevertheless, it is a possibility,” said Yun.
The meeting with Kim has got Xi “back in the game,” echoed Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Xi Jinping and China have really been marginalized over the last few weeks as the inter-Korean relationship has begun to improve,” Glaser noted. This week’s meeting, she believes, allowed Xi to shore up his relationship with North Korea and convey some of the outcomes China would like to see from Kim’s meeting with Trump.
Beijing And Washington’s Divided Interests
From Trump’s perspective, China’s role in addressing the nuclear threat from North Korea has, in many ways, been disappointing. The U.S. president had expressed hope that Xi would cooperate by restricting Beijing’s trade relations with Pyongyang, which has only happened to a limited degree thus far.
“If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times last year, after repeatedly tweeting about his frustrations over Beijing’s apparent unwillingness to help rein in the North.
Even so, Trump has continued to push China to leverage its economic influence over North Korea.
China is the North’s biggest trading partner, and has historically opposed harsh international sanctions on the isolated nation to prevent a regime collapse and consequent influx of North Korean refugees. The countries’ relations have worsened in recent months, however, as China bowed to international pressure and backed tougher U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.
Experts worry that Beijing and Washington’s competing objectives and foreign policy disputes could hinder efforts to peacefully resolve tensions with North Korea, even at this critical time.
“The Chinese have always been fearful that [the American-North Korean relationship] could improve in a way that could be harmful to Chinese interests, or that somehow North Korea could be transformed into a partner of the United States. It sounds crazy, but I hear them say this all the time,” said Glaser.
She believes that the best possible approach to denuclearizing North Korea involves multilateral cooperation and trust, but said Kim has successfully undermined hopes of a collaborative effort by turning South Korean, Chinese and American officials against one another.
“It is in Kim’s interest to divide the United States from South Korea and China, and try to get whatever he can from each of these countries. If all three of them were aligned against North Korea, that would be the worst outcome for Kim,” she said. “He’s playing a weak hand very, very well.”