For much of the past year, China has repeatedly — sometimes with exasperation — called on the U.S. and North Korea to sit down and chat. Now the goal is to ensure they keep talking.
President Xi Jinping backed Donald Trump’s surprise decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying a diplomatic solution is the best way to resolve the situation. The U.S. president praised Xi over the weekend, saying he’s “helped us a lot” on North Korea. Xi is set to meet with a South Korean envoy who brokered the talks on Monday.
The detente temporarily removes one persistent headache for Xi as he prepares for a potential trade war with the U.S. and consolidates power in China, which formally 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 U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
“If the U.S. finds that the negotiations are useless and North Korea hasn’t taken any actual denuclearization, then the U.S. may adopt even more stringent sanctions or other extreme measures,” said Yang Xiyu, former director of the Chinese foreign ministry’s Office on Korean Peninsula Issues. “At that time, China and the U.S. may face even greater conflict.”
China has claimed credit for the shift toward dialogue, saying that both the U.S. 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.
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 Yi told reporters in his annual press 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 North Korea have been frosty under Xi, who has yet to meet with 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 Kim, it refused to do 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. Some analysts speculate that China also doesn’t want to see the two Koreas unite out of fear of having a U.S. aligned country directly on its border, the International Crisis Group said in January.
For now, however, Xi can focus more on deleveraging the economy, reforming state enterprises and ensuring the Communist Party delivers on promises.
Eased tensions between the U.S. and North Korea “relieves pressure on China as it can better promote domestic political and economic reforms,” said Ruan Zongze, a former top diplomat in Washington and vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “China has very important domestic development tasks and does not want to be disturbed by other things.”