This week in Hanoi, the lights will be shining brightly on U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Not far away from that big stage, China will be watching closely and if all goes smoothly, asserting that it too has played a role in efforts to promote peace on the Korean peninsula.
Kim arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday, a journey by train and automobile that lasted more than 60 hours and took him from the Northeast of China to the Vietnamese capital.
For his trip, China has once again ensured Kim’s security as he traveled. For the first summit in Singapore, Kim flew on a chartered jet that Beijing provided. This time he was given an escort across the country, sparking complaints online about traffic restrictions that Chinese authorities eventually censored.
Slow train through China
Lu Chao, a North Korea expert at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said there was nothing strange about Kim’s travel arrangements.
“This is just one of his choices of transportation,” Lu said. “And perhaps since he is traveling all the way from the north to south of China, across all of China, it might give him an opportunity along the way to see different parts of the country.”
He said that while there was speculation that Kim might stop in Beijing on his way to Hanoi, there was no need for that as Kim and China’s President Xi Jinping met in early January and had in-depth talks about the Hanoi summit.
“Perhaps after the meetings in Hanoi, on his way back through China, Kim will deliver a short report to China’s leader,” Lu said.
Lips and teeth again
Lu added that such close communication was a long-established tradition between the two countries. The relationship between China and North Korea has often been described as being as close as lips and teeth, but for the first five years while Xi Jinping was in office, some felt the relationship had had its teeth knocked out.
China joined other nations in sanctioning Pyongyang in response to its repeated missile and nuclear tests and it wasn’t until March of last year that Xi Jinping met with Kim for the first time. Since then, they have met on multiple occasions for extended periods of time, noted Alexander Neill, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“China as North Korea’s only ostensible ally, China wants to be seen as the key stakeholder in this whole initiative, Neill said.
Now, Beijing is choreographing the relationship as something that is more than just tentative, he said.
“I think Xi Jinping, quite fairly, wants to be seen not only as an arbitrator, but perhaps someone who has been proactive in initiating this sort of a dialogue,” he said.
Just how much praise China can claim, however, depends on how much progress is made in Hanoi. And how much progress can be made will depend on what the two can agree on in terms of denuclearization and what steps Washington is prepared to take in response.
In China there is hope that progress will be made, but clarity that big differences still remain, Lu Chao said.
“For this summit, while we may not believe that there will be comprehensive progress, we do hope that some encouraging progress will be made that heads in that direction,” Lu said.
Progress that could at least lead to a loosening of sanctions, he added.
In the United States there is concern that President Trump may lower the bar too far when it comes to the question of what actions might qualify Pyongyang to receive a loosening of sanctions.
Those concerns are being echoed in commentaries in China as well, said David Kelly, research director at China Policy, a Beijing-based research group.
“There is a lot of theatrical elements in this (summit). Everyone is being massaged to expect friendly faces, a nice lunch, nice meetings and nice communiques, but there is a lot of fine detail that we will need to see in the commentary (that follows in China),” Kelly said. “I really don’t see China being less concerned about the Korea issue.”
Officially, China will want to claim to be the patron of the summit, the ringmaster, but it remains to be seen whether Trump may be able to pull Kim a little closer to Washington, Kelly said.
There is definitely concern in China that that could happen, he added.
“This is what they were worried about last year and there is no reason to think that those fears have ended,” Kelly said. “Beijing is not as secure in its hold over North Korea as it claims and as a lot media believe.”