U.S. President Donald Trump's decision in March to meet with Kim Jong Un has dramatically reshaped Beijing's calculations and posture toward North Korea. The ramifications of the summit, however, will ultimately determine China's role. With the amicable meeting setting the stage for subsequent dialogue, China will work to insert itself into the equation to increase its economic leverage to keep North Korea in its orbit.
The June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was historic even if it didn't produce any earth-shattering breakthrough — and that's just how China wants it. Though short on specifics regarding critical issues such as denuclearization and U.S. security guarantees, the summit's amicable atmosphere assuaged Beijing's immediate fears about hostilities on its doorstep. For Beijing, the prospect for better ties between Washington and Pyongyang is a positive outcome, so long as the dialogue does not produce outright failure or a sudden rapprochement that leads to what China might call Kim's "Nixon moment." Amid expectations that Washington and Pyongyang will steer their relations between these two extremes — while remaining mindful about the potential for another false dawn — China will look to insert itself into the discussions so it can shape the future of the Korean Peninsula in accordance with its interests.
In Chinese policy circles, the expectations for a significant breakthrough in the runup to the summit were relatively low. But Beijing also did not desire the return of any stalemate, preferring instead continued dialogue. Having previously acknowledged its limited ability to influence either side, Beijing had framed the North Korean crisis as one whose solution lies in bilateral talks alone. In turn, China has expressed hopes that such talks could initiate more comprehensive nuclear and political negotiations that would ultimately allow it to play a more significant role. Nonetheless, after restoring its strained relationship with North Korea and regaining its role on the peninsula, Beijing hopes to insert itself into the equation — especially if the summit ushers in a mechanism to manage the Korean issue.
North Korea's reduction (if not eradication) of its nuclear capacity and cessation of further missile tests would represent a net gain for China — especially if the United States also halts military exercises with South Korea. Beijing entertains few hopes that Pyongyang will truly abandon its nuclear weapons or that Washington will ease strategic pressure on China if the peninsula becomes a nuclear-free zone. But the latest dialogue will ease Beijing's immediate concerns about military confrontations while also providing the country with a counterargument to regional neighbors such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, who support the advancement of U.S.-led defense deployments and even nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia.
What Comes Next
Wary of becoming the odd country out, Beijing's next priority will be to ensure its continued role in shaping events on the peninsula. China is aware that both Washington and Pyongyang hope to bypass, or at least reduce, their reliance on it in its usual role as mediator. Mindful of this potential point of convergence, China harbors concerns that follow-up meetings could result in a tactical alignment or even a deal that could jeopardize its strategic interests on the peninsula. Still, as the major regional power and a signatory of the 1953 Korean War armistice, China views itself as an indispensable actor in any peace deal that determines the peninsula's future.
China is likely to use its economic influence to ensure that North Korea does not fall into the United States' orbit. Tentative detente between North Korea and the United States will make it easier for Beijing to wield its economic influence — and even challenge the sanctions against the communist state — to ensure Pyongyang remains closer to China than the United States. By doing so, China would gain a tool to defend itself against growing U.S. pressure on trade and other issues. Beijing has already eased its unilateral punitive measures against North Korea and has a strong incentive to maintain the economic momentum — to the extent that it has encouraged Pyongyang to emulate China and open up its economy. After all, a more liberal North Korean economy would offer Beijing a more stable neighbor and increase prosperity in China's northeast, which is isolated due to its lack of sea access and Pyongyang's policies.
Beijing welcomes the prospect of warmer ties between Washington and Pyongyang, but it will base its ultimate perception and actions on the balance of power on the peninsula and its position regarding the United States. The summit could offer China a chance to help shape relations on its northeastern frontier, but the rapid developments on the peninsula could provide a stern test of Beijing's role and its desire to preserve its strategic interests in the area.