Many questions remain unanswered about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to China from March 25 to 28. For example, did Xi Jinping and Kim reach any private understandings on loosening pressure and supporting North Korea’s economic development? Did Xi counsel Kim on how to deal with President Trump and, if so, what advice did he provide? Did the two sides reach any shared view on a sequence of steps for lowering tensions on the Korean Peninsula?
Without yet knowing the answers to these questions, and recognizing that any understanding of the substance of the visit presently is based solely on characterizations from both governments and their official news outlets, which do not hold a reputation for impartiality or objectivity, a few initial observations nevertheless can be made. First, Beijing reasserted itself as a central actor in managing security issues in Northeast Asia. Second, Kim maintained initiative in dictating the direction and speed of developments on the Korean Peninsula. Third, the visit gave the impression of a White House that was caught off guard rather than leading international efforts to confront North Korea and push it toward denuclearization.
Based on the extensive Chinese media coverage after the visit—as well as the overwhelmingly positive read-out in China’s official media—Chinese leaders appear to want to signal to a domestic and international audience that: 1) Beijing and Pyongyang each see it as in their interests to repair relations, 2) Beijing is determined to play a decisive role in any diplomatic process for dealing with the Korean Peninsula, and 3) Xi is the elder statesman in his relationship with Kim. Beijing seems to be trying to dispel any speculation that Trump and Kim could reach a grand bargain on their own about the future of the Korean Peninsula. The visit also served as a fresh reminder that Xi is unencumbered by emotion or sentimentality. In shaping China’s approach toward North Korea, Xi will not be swayed by charm or personal chemistry with Trump, nor will he be blinded by any personal feelings toward Kim.
Pyongyang also benefited from the trip. According to the official readout, Kim shored up his country’s relations with China and gained Beijing’s support for his planned engagement with South Korean and American leaders—all for the modest cost of his time and presenting standard blandishments of longstanding North Korean positions. Importantly, the visit also exposed the limits of Chinese support for the American-led maximum pressure campaign. Xi’s pledge to “push the relations between the two parties and the two countries to a new high in a new historical phase” stands at odds with U.S. efforts to isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically. As a result, Kim will enter talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump more confident that Beijing will not abandon him.
Like it or not, Beijing is determined to remain a central player in the adjudication of events in Northeast Asia.
For the United States, by contrast, the visit gave the impression that Washington was playing catch-up on the issue that it has identified as America’s most pressing foreign policy challenge. The White House acknowledged that Beijing notified it after the visit—as opposed to coordinating ahead of time. Whether deliberately or not, this lack of coordination mirrored President Trump’s decision to reach out to President Xi only after he announced his willingness to meet Kim.
Like it or not, Beijing is determined to remain a central player in the adjudication of events in Northeast Asia, and Kim recognizes that he strengthens his hand by patching up relations with Beijing. The more Washington is able to adapt by bolstering coordination and building cohesion with Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Moscow on a common approach for dealing with North Korea, the better the odds that Trump will be able to use his planned upcoming meeting with Kim to push the North Korea challenge down a peaceful path.
The crux of [America's China] strategy is to advance interests, uphold values, and strengthen cohesion with allies and partners. One hopes that the Biden administration will be able to move discussion from questions of toughness to measures of effectiveness in delivering tangible results.