For much of the past year, China has repeatedly – sometimes with exasperation – called on the United States and North Korea to sit down and chat. Now the goal is to ensure they keep talking.
Chinese President Xi Jinping backed Donald Trump’s surprise decision to meet Kim Jong-un, saying a diplomatic solution was the best way to resolve the two nations’ disagreements. Trump praised Xi over the weekend, saying he had “helped us a lot” on North Korea.
The impending talks temporarily remove a persistent headache for Xi as he prepares for a potential trade war with the US and consolidates power in China, which scrapped presidential term limits on Sunday. Yet the high-stakes summit also creates more risk for China if the talks fail, particularly as Trump has warned of military force to stop Kim from threatening the US with nuclear weapons.
“If the US finds that the negotiations are useless and North Korea hasn’t taken any actual denuclearisation, then the US may adopt even more stringent sanctions or other extreme measures,” Yang Xiyu, former director of the Chinese foreign ministry’s Office on Korean Peninsula Issues, said. “At that time, China and the US may face even greater conflict.”
Beijing has claimed credit for the shift towards dialogue, saying the US and North Korea had effectively adhered to its call for a dual suspension of provocations to reduce tensions. As North Korea’s biggest trading partner, China’s support for increasingly tough sanctions over the past year has put pressure on Kim’s regime.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi struck a cautious tone last week when discussing recent events with North Korea, including a planned summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April.
“Despite light at the end of the tunnel, the journey ahead won’t be smooth,” Wang said at his annual news conference. “Now is a crucial moment for testing the sincerity of the parties. Every effort must be made for peace, and the opportunity must be seized.”
China’s direct role so far has been limited despite its economic leverage. Relations with Pyongyang have been frosty under Xi, who has yet to meet Kim. South Korea has instead played a key role in orchestrating talks.
Even so, any lasting solution to the North Korean crisis will require China’s endorsement. While it backed harsher sanctions against Pyongyang, it refused to completely cut off oil or do anything else that could cause the regime to collapse.
Beijing has sought to balance its desire for North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons with other goals, including avoiding war and chaos that could upend China’s economy and social stability.