Beijing is likely to agree with the United States about the urgent need to stop North Korea from going ahead with its nuclear ambitions and closely monitor Chinese companies’ ties with Pyongyang during high-level talks between the two sides, observers said.
But the fundamental differences between China and the United States over North Korea will be exposed when US President Donald Trump touches down in Beijing on Wednesday, as China is reluctant to bow to pressure to impose more sanctions, they said.
On Tuesday, Trump landed in Seoul for the second stage of his Asian tour, and will arrive in Beijing on Wednesday.
In Beijing, he will have talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, where he is expected to urge China to rein in Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Justin Hastings, an international relations scholar at the University of Sydney who has researched Chinese-North Korean trade, said it was in China’s interest to ensure Pyongyang refrained from provocation.
“Trump wants China to pressure North Korea … China’s influence on North Korea’s behaviour is overstated,” Hastings said.
“China will not impose its own sanctions against Pyongyang, but it might look at Chinese companies that violate UN sanctions more closely, or it might send a signal to North Korea via stricter trade sanctions enforcement, or trade cutoffs”.
China imposed UN sanctions against North Korea in mid-August, banning imports of coal, iron ore and other commodities from the restive state.
In late September, it ordered North Korean companies operating within its borders to shut down within 120 days, but it did not stop sending oil to its reclusive neighbour.
In his talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday, Trump said the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was over and that the US and Japan were working to counter the “dangerous aggression” of Pyongyang.
Last month Trump congratulated Xi on his “extraordinary elevation” after he consolidated his grip on power at the Communist Party congress, describing his Chinese counterpart as a “powerful man”.
Washington believes this elevated status will confer the power to take tougher action against North Korea.
But Beijing has said repeatedly that it would not take action that would endanger the livelihoods of the North Korean people, and that military options and unilateral sanctions should not be considered.
Lee Kyu-tae, a geopolitics expert at South Korea’s Catholic Kwandong University, said that even though China and the US both wanted to solve the North Korea problem, the core strategic differences between the world’s two biggest economies would hinder progress.
“Beijing and Washington advocate two different ways of addressing the issue. Beijing wants Washington to come to the negotiating table, while Washington wants Beijing to step up the pressure,” Lee said. “The two can’t agree with each other as they have different interests.”
Wang Sheng, a specialist in North Korean affairs at Jilin University, said Beijing would not bow to pressure to further rein in Pyongyang and would enforce only UN sanctions.
“I suppose the two leaders might focus more on bilateral issues such as trade and the South China Sea, rather than heavily discussing North Korea,” he said.