In the head-snapping drama of the off-again, on-again U.S.-North Korea summit, the unpredictable lead actors, President Trump and Kim Jong Un, hold center stage.
But off in the wings, China is controlling some of the key action — and may help dictate the ending.
Until recently, Beijing seemed to share Washington’s growing worry about Pyongyang’s increasingly powerful nuclear tests and ballistic missiles. Armed with a United Nations resolution, Chinese President Xi Jinping began squeezing his Communist “little brother” with the toughest economic sanctions ever.
But in March, when Trump instantly accepted Kim’s surprise invitation for a summit, the Chinese leader reversed course almost overnight — raising alarms in Washington.
Instead of stepping up the pressure, Xi invited the young dictator to Beijing for his first foreign trip since he took power in 2011. Kim arrived on an armored train and was feted in the Great Hall of the People. The visit was widely seen as a rapprochement between two long-fractious allies.
If there was any doubt of the warming ties, Xi and Kim unexpectedly met again in northeast China in early May. Official photos showed them strolling shoulder to shoulder along a craggy beach. And reports indicated China was allowing cross-border trade to pick up again.
Trump later complained he was blindsided by the second meeting, saying it occurred “all of a sudden out of nowhere,” and warned that Xi “could be influencing” Kim to raise his demands. Trump has met or spoken to Xi multiple times, and Kim also may have sought Xi’s advice on negotiating with the strong-willed, mercurial president.
With the Trump-Kim summit back on track for June 12 in Singapore, China’s growing role is now a wild card in the dizzying diplomacy about denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.
Analysts offer several reasons for Xi’s policy reversal and what it means for the United States.
In the short term, they say, China’s leaders feared they might be left on the sidelines while North Korea’s seemingly impetuous leader struck some kind of deal with Trump that would change the strategic status quo on the Chinese border.
That could bolster Washington in the contentious trade disputes that have roiled relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies.
But more worrisome for U.S. policy makers, China seems to have concluded that any potential nuclear disarmament deal would require some U.S. concessions — and those are likely to weaken America’s military posture on the Korean peninsula and throughout Asia.
One potential outcome of the Singapore summit, for example, would be an agreement to formally end the Korean War, which sputtered to a close in 1953 with a ceasefire. Trump already has hinted he wants to bring some U.S. troops home, citing the cost of overseas deployments, and an end to the conflict might hasten that decision.
Anything that reduces U.S. influence and power in the western Pacific – removing some or all of the more than 28,000 U.S. military personnel from South Korea, for example, or pulling out U.S. anti-missile systems from the region -- would immeasurably strengthen China’s hand there.
Xi already appears to have achieved Beijing’s short-term goal. In snuggling up to Kim, however grudgingly, Xi has reasserted China’s indispensable role in negotiating any change to the major geopolitical currents in Asia.
For his part, Kim already seems to have shrewdly played his summit with Trump into better relations with China — or at least a return to the uneasy strategic and economic partnership of the last seven decades.
Kim’s nuclear and missile tests, along with capricious acts of violence aimed at his suspected rivals, had made him an increasing irritant in Beijing in recent years. Some senior party members argued it was high time to cut Pyongyang loose.
Trump changed that calculus when he impulsively agreed to Kim’s overture on March 6. Kim made his international debut in Beijing less than three weeks later, reportedly bringing his wife, Ri Sol-
“All of a sudden such a warm welcome party to the North Korean leader surprised many people in China,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Kim apparently has decided he wants China in his corner when the haggling starts. “The North Korean leader understands this — without China’s support, you cannot get anything done,” Li said.
Chinese leaders care immensely how they are portrayed internationally and to their domestic audience. For Xi in particular, few things would be as politically damaging as China being marginalized by the U.S. president in its own backyard.
At home, Xi has widely promoted his “China dream” of restoring the country’s past glory while carefully cultivating his image as a global statesman to the outside world.
At first, Beijing was alarmed by Kim’s gambit for a summit. The North Korean leader announced a freeze in nuclear and missile tests, a confidence-building measure that Pyongyang could easily reverse, saying it already had achieved a credible nuclear deterrent.
But it was unilateral, not China’s long-sought “freeze for freeze,” by which Beijing meant an agreement in which a North Korean nuclear halt would be matched by such concessions as cutting U.S. troop levels in South Korea or suspending large-scale joint military exercises there.
Indeed, after Xi’s second meeting with Kim, North Korea suddenly took a harsher tone and demanded Washington cease joint military drills then underway. After days of escalating rhetoric on both sides, Trump cancelled the summit on May 24, although he reversed himself last week and put it back on the calendar.
As Chinese analysts see it, a summit that soothes tensions in the Korean peninsula would clearly benefit China. And whatever Trump may think, they doubt that Xi tried to be a spoiler.
“A more normal and more open [North] is a much more important strategic goal for China,” said Zhao Tong, a North Korea specialist at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Any positive result in the summit would be good news for China.”
Everyone agrees the nightmare scenario is a summit failure and a preemptive U.S. military strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. But from China’s point of view, the next worst outcome might be a deal for an accelerated nuclear disarmament that didn’t account for China’s strategic interests, namely the drawdown of U.S. forces from the region.
But analysts see little chance of that happening. A more likely outcome, said David Kang, an international relations professor at USC, is a long-term reciprocal arrangement in which Kim offers “phased denuclearization for real proof that the United States is not going to destabilize him.”
To be sure, some in China worry about Pyongyang drawing closer to the United States as a way of balancing between the giants, as many countries have done. Some even see a distant future when the two Koreas might merge into a single, strong nation allied with America, much as East and West Germany unified after the Cold War.
For China, “that’s much more undesirable than to live with a pariah state armed with a nuclear weapon,” said Yanmei Xie, senior China policy analyst for Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing research firm.
“China would like North Korea to not have nuclear weapons, open up its economy and embark on Chinese-style economic reforms,” she said. “But China understands that’s a very tall order on both fronts. ... Its long-term hope is that North Korea just doesn’t make trouble.”
Ironically, China also stands to benefit if the two Koreas ultimately become one.
“If you had a unified Korea,” said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, “the United States would certainly be out in terms of U.S. military presence, and you have a Korea either neutral or leaning toward China.”
“Given the economic weight of China with both South Korea and North Korea, that’s not an unreasonable expectation,” she added.
Special correspondent Jessica Meyers contributed from Beijing.