BEIJING – President Donald Trump's abrupt withdrawal from his planned summit with North Korea raises the stakes for China to show that it can steer the North toward easing tensions over its nuclear program. But despite a recent warming in ties, Beijing's influence over its neighbor may be overstated.
Trump's cancellation of the June 12 meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un would appear to make the North Korean leader more reliant on China. Kim had only weeks earlier been sipping tea and strolling through seaside gardens in the port of Dalian with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a surprise trip to China that seemed designed to project Beijing's closeness with the North.
Trump, who now suggests there's still a chance of holding a summit, blamed Kim's trip to China for creating an unwelcome "change in attitude" by the North Korean leader, a view shared by some observers. "The winner at this moment is Chinese President Xi Jinping," wrote retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in a commentary.
But Trump might have misjudged Kim's attitude and China's role, said Cheng Xiaohe, an expert at Renmin University's School of International Studies in Beijing.
"China is not a disruptive element," Cheng said. He said Xi's meeting with Kim was meant to boost the inexperienced and isolated North Korean leader's confidence in dealing with complex diplomacy.
Beijing urged the U.S. and North Korea on Friday to "meet each other halfway and stay committed to addressing each other's concerns." On suggestions that China was to blame for the cancellation of the summit, the Foreign Ministry said that instead of accusing China, others should "reflect upon themselves first."
Trump seems to think China is key to getting North Korea to the bargaining table, but that might be an overestimation, said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"China cannot tell Kim Jong Un what to do," Delury said. "Kim made a real point of keeping his distance from China for six years. He's not going to be their running dog."
China may have asked Kim to make suspending U.S.-South Korean military drills an issue in talks with Trump, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But what most likely upended the summit was a comment by John Bolton, Trump's hawkish national security adviser, that compared North Korea to Libya, she said. Libya gave up its nuclear program at an early stage only to see its longtime dictator overthrown and brutally killed years later.
"I doubt that Xi tried to sabotage the Trump-Kim summit," Glaser said.
The apparent failure of America's direct outreach to North Korea could see Beijing reasserting itself as being pivotal in handling the North. China now appears squarely at the center of any push to bring the sides together and Washington and South Korea will likely have to work more closely with China now, Cheng said.
That could put new momentum behind China's proposed solutions, such as a freeze in large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises in return for a halt to the North's nuclear and missile programs.
China also backs the North's call for a "phased and synchronous" approach to denuclearization, as opposed to Washington's demand for an instant, total and irreversible end to the North's nuclear programs.
But recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea have already undermined U.S. trust in Xi's reliability, which could reduce the weight it gives to China's role in solving Korean tensions, said George Washington University China expert Robert Sutter. Trump had been seen as offering more lenient conditions on trade and deferring other actions in return for Chinese help on North Korea.
"Even if Xi Jinping and China are not viewed as duplicitous on North Korea, the Trump administration may come to see the North Korea problem as not readily fixable," Sutter said. "In that case, its urgency and importance could decline, reducing one of the reasons for lenient treatment of China on other sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations."
Meanwhile, Beijing's appeals for the Kim regime to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms may finally be gaining traction after the North announced in April that it was shifting its national focus to improving its economy. China is by far North Korea's biggest trading partner, although commerce between them has plummeted since Beijing began strictly enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions targeting the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
China would be swift to seize on any opening if North Korea lowers tensions in the hope that punishing economic sanctions would be loosened, said Guo Rui, a professor at Jilin University's School of Public Administration in northeastern China.
"In that case, China would surely play a constructive role in assisting the North Korean economy," Guo said.