Trump’s decision to scrap US-North Korean talks could make China feel less compelled to squeeze Pyongyang economically.
The Chinese government is disappointed by US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of his planned summit with North Korea leader Kim jong-un but privately the leadership will not be surprised.
After all, Beijing is caught between the world’s two most unpredictable leaders.
Just two days ago, while on a brief visit to Washington, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had publicly urged the US to “cherish the opportunity for peace”.
So, it is fair to assume that Trump’s decision amounts to a slap in the face not just for Pyongyang but also Beijing.
In his letter sent to Kim, Trump based his decision on what he said was the “tremendous anger and open hostility” contained in North Korean statements in recent days.
But Chinese commentators say the summit’s demise ultimately began with John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who essentially said Kim could end up like Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya’s late leader was forced to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a normalisation of relations with the West. He was eventually killed by Western-backed rebels in 2011.
China’s leaders will doubtless also wonder about the timing of Trump’s decision, coming just hours after North Korea carried out its promise to dismantle tunnels at its only nuclear test site.
Beijing feels that this is further sign that Kim is sincere about moving towards denuclearisation, albeit in his own time. There is a deep suspicion, say some Chinese analysts, that Trump may actually never have had any intention to go to Singapore on June 12 for the planned meeting.
What comes next?
What China says and does next will be crucial, given that talks between Washington and Beijing aimed at averting a trade war remain unresolved.
In the past, Trump has subjected President Xi Jinping to a burst of provocative flattery. But his tone changed a few days ago when he said Xi had influence over Kim – and was using that influence to gain leverage in the trade talks.
China is still the only real ally that North Korea has, yet Beijing has been at the forefront of UN efforts to enforce sanctions against its ideological neighbour.
Will China now feel less compelled to squeeze North Korea economically? The state media on Friday was measured in its assessment.
An editorial in the China Daily concluded that “an end to hostilities and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula are the goals that many countries have been working for in the past decades … which is true of China, whatever, Trump might suggest to the contrary”.
There are now multiple friction points between Beijing and Washington: Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Iran nuclear deal and now Trump’s decision to cancel a summit China had welcomed.