When Xi Jinping makes his first visit to North Korea as China’s president on Thursday, he’ll be broadcasting a message to the U.S. and Japan: When it comes to Pyongyang’s nukes, Beijing still wields immense power.
With the Group of 20 summit in Osaka just over a week away, Xi’s two-day state visit for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears timed to deliver this message to its intended target, experts say. The trip could rocket the denuclearization issue to near the top of the agenda for expected bilateral talks between Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the June 28-29 summit.
“I think the message is simple: China is the key player in Northeast Asian affairs,” said Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “Without China’s assistance, the stalled North Korea nuclear negotiations will not go anywhere.”
The nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been deadlocked since the second Trump-Kim summit collapsed without a deal due to major differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.
China, the North’s top ally and economic lifeline, has urged the two sides to return to the negotiating table, and Xi’s visit — the first trip by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years — will surely see the two sides discuss ways to kick-start talks with the U.S.
“I expect that Beijing would like to see more progress, or at least the appearance of progress, in negotiations between North Korea and the United States,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, wrote in a blog post Monday. “Beijing is likely worried that the lack of progress in negotiations could eventually devolve into another round of crisis and tension, so would like to make sure that diplomacy could continue — even if the prospects for tangible progress remain slim.”
The state-run China Daily said in an editorial late Monday that Xi’s visit, which comes in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries in October, would be a reciprocal visit after Kim’s four trips to China, including the latest in January.
While the relationship between China and North Korea is no longer as close as “lips and teeth,” as it was once portrayed, diplomatic maneuvering to show that ties have improved has already been set in motion. This was highlighted with Beijing’s reference to the trip as a “state visit” — the first time these terms were employed for a Chinese leader’s visit to the North. Previous trips had mostly been labeled as an “official friendly visit,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website.
It was unclear what the change meant, but observers say China may have offered the “state visit” label as a way of conveying to the international community that North Korea, despite its nuclear arsenal and rights abuses, must be dealt with as a normal nation.
According to the China Daily, Xi’s first visit since he took office in November 2012 was “expected to inject new vitality into the ongoing peaceful resolution of the Korean Peninsula issues.”
But he could also use it to bolster China’s position in an ongoing trade war with the U.S. before any possible meeting with Trump at the Osaka G20. Washington and Beijing have not confirmed whether that meeting will take place, though the White House has said it is seeking a sit-down.
The trade war between the world’s two largest economies has grown increasingly acrimonious over the past several months. And other issues, including China’s moves in the South China Sea and U.S. support for Taiwan, have also contributed to deteriorating Sino-U.S. ties. But before that, Trump had repeatedly said he was counting on Xi’s help with pressuring Kim into relinquishing his nuclear and missile arsenals.
There have, however, been signs that Beijing, unhappy with the U.S., is turning more of a blind eye toward North Korean moves to evade crushing U.N. sanctions.
This was highlighted earlier this month, when acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan delivered a pointed message to his Chinese counterpart, presenting him with a “gift”: a 32-page scrapbook of photographs and satellite images detailing North Korean ships getting and delivering shipments of oil off China’s coast. Proof, according to Washington, that Beijing was allowing the sanctions violations to take place.
Nevertheless, China will be hoping to use the Xi-Kim meeting to show off the “unique influence over North Korea” that it still retains, said Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
“This special influence becomes even more important as both the United States and South Korea have been unable to resume high-level talks with North Korean leaders,” Zhao said.
He said it would serve as a reminder to Washington that Beijing’s cooperation is necessary if the U.S. hopes to achieve its strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific region.
“At a critical moment of the U.S.-China relationship, Beijing may want to remind Washington that it is not in the U.S. interests to drive its relationship with China further in the direction of a new Cold War,” Zhao added.
Still, Zhao noted that playing the North Korea card in trade talks with the U.S. and threatening to undermine the nuclear negotiations would not be in China’s interests.
According to Zhao, doing so “would backfire because China has less leverage than the United States in the trade negotiations.”
Instead, Beijing “may want to prove to the United States that China can be helpful in bridging the existing diplomatic gap between Pyongyang and Washington.”
“In this way,” Zhao said, “Beijing may expect Washington to take a more flexible approach in the trade dispute.”
Such a message could be conveyed, perhaps implicitly during bilateral talks, at the G20 summit, observers say.
Xi could also be asked to deliver a message from Kim to Trump, though this would come just days after Trump bragged of receiving a “beautiful” letter from the North Korean dictator. Media reports citing sources familiar with the letter’s contents said it did not contain any details on a way forward for the stalled nuclear talks.
Experts say it is conceivable that Kim could ask Xi to attempt to persuade Trump to moderate his administration’s tough public stance that the U.S. will only offer sanctions relief after the North’s complete denuclearization. Beijing has advocated for a step-by-step, dual-track process — an approach similar to the “phased and synchronous” one pushed by Pyongyang.
“It’s possible that Xi will carry some message from Kim to Trump, with Kim asking Trump to be realistic and seriously address North Korea’s concerns,” said Bucknell’s Zhu.
As for a possible message to Abe, who shifted gears on North Korea last month when he offered to meet Kim “unconditionally,” James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that Kim appeared more focused on Trump and the U.S. than the Japanese leader.
“It’s possible that Xi could facilitate the delivery of a message from Kim to Abe — if, for example, Kim had some interest in meeting with Abe under certain conditions — but I’m not confident that Kim wants to move on this front,” Schoff said.
“For Xi and Kim, this is a mutually beneficial meeting ahead of the G20.”
But even at the Osaka gathering of top world leaders, other concerns — including economic issues and the U.S.-Iran standoff — are still expected to overshadow the North Korean nuclear quandary and any possible moves by Kim to make a better pitch to Trump.
“With Xi showing greater solidarity with Kim, and Trump more preoccupied by Iran, I don’t see why this would be the time for Kim to compromise,” Schoff said.