Direct talks between the leaders of the United States and North Korea are expected to sideline China in efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, analysts said.
But Chinese state media said on the weekend that Beijing would still play a role in resolving the crisis.
The assessment follows US President Donald Trump’s decision on Friday to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of face-to-face talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, a proposal that bypassed China, North Korea’s neighbour and biggest trading partner.
Nevertheless it was a decision that Chinese President Xi Jinping praised in a phone call to Trump, with him applauding the US president on his “positive gesture”.
“We hope that all relevant parties can make positive gestures and refrain from actions that prevent the situation on the Korean peninsula from calming down,” Xi was quoted by state-run broadcaster CCTV as saying.
Trump was quoted as saying that North Korea had sent a positive signal to defuse tensions, and that talks between Washington and Pyongyang would benefit all parties involved.
Xi and Trump also discussed the development of Sino-US relations, and both leaders said the two nations had to properly manage their disputes, CCTV reported.
Analysts said the agreement to hold talks reflected a slow thaw in ties between the US and North Korea.
At the same time, relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have deteriorated over China’s enforcement of economic sanctions against the reclusive authoritarian regime.
Tong Zhao, from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said China was no longer a central player in the crisis.
“The North Korean nuclear issue no longer requires China’s sanctions on North Korea to push Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. This time has already passed,” Tong said. “It is now time for the parties directly involved in the conflict – the US, South Korea, and North Korea – to engage directly.”
Beijing is likely to be pleased at plans for direct dialogue between the US and North Korea, given its consistent calls for the crisis to be resolved through diplomacy, according to Fudan University international relations professor Wei Zongyou.
Still, one summit would not be enough to break the stand-off, Wei said.
“The nuclear and missile issues require more protracted talks,” he said. “In this process, China will be an active supporter and promoter of denuclearisation.”
Chinese state media also promoted Beijing as an ongoing actor in the Korean peninsula drama, adding that Xi had “correctly insisted” that the US engage in dialogue with North Korea.
“China will continue its tireless efforts to bring the Korean peninsula situation back on the track of stability and peace, and the nuclear problem back onto the track of dialogue and resolution,” a commentary in state-run People’s Daily argued on Saturday.
While the time and location of the Trump-Xi meeting has not been set, Mongolia has already offered to host, with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj tweeting that his country is “the most suitable, neutral territory”.
Harry Kazianis, a director for defence studies at the Centre for the National Interest, outlined ways to make sure the upcoming talks would prove meaningful – and not be a trap.
First, the talks should not take place in North Korea, Kazianis said. Being able to meet Trump on home soil would give the North Korean leader “a huge propaganda win”.
North Korea also should lay out a timeline for giving up its nuclear weapons, he said.
Next, there must be a common understanding among North Korea and the US’ allies about what an acceptable deal would look like, Kazianis said.
Finally, Washington and Seoul must continue to hold their pre-planned military exercises, even though Kim had denounced them in the past as acts or war, the director said.
But the prospect of the summit being held in China appears remote.
Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong said China wanted to be involved to a limited degree, to keep “watching with prudence”. But Kim would not want to hold talks in China, particularly after its sanctions on his country.
Wei agreed. “It is very obvious that Kim wants to bypass China, and does not want China to take part,” he said.
Additional reporting by Zhenhua Lu, US correspondent, and Wendy Wu