Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to make his first state visit to North Korea this week, a surprise move that could rattle his relationship with President Donald Trump, who has twice met the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and made his nuclear diplomacy a signature foreign policy project, The New York Times reported.
Kim has traveled to China four times in the past 15 months to confer with the Chinese president. However, 66-year-old Xi, who is one of the most traveled Chinese leaders, had been reluctant to reciprocate before now, depriving the 35-year-old Kim of the prestige of playing host to his most powerful neighbor.
By going to Pyongyang, the North’s capital, Xi is injecting himself into the middle of Trump’s negotiating efforts, which have languished since February when he and Kim failed to agree on a disarmament deal in Hanoi, Vietnam. Several analysts said they expected Xi to try to revive those talks during his two-day visit, on Thursday and Friday.
He could then deliver a plan for the next phase of the nuclear negotiations to Trump in Osaka, Japan, where he and the American president are expected to meet on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit meeting, The Times added.
That would be a “beautiful present” to Trump, said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, given the tensions between the United States and China over trade and the American actions against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. It would also be a distraction from large demonstrations in Hong Kong, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump would raise with Xi when they meet.
But Xi’s move also risks sidelining Trump in the diplomatic undertaking that he views as one of his biggest potential legacies. And it suggests the Chinese leader is willing to strike out on his own, both in his own neighborhood and with leaders in Russia, India and other countries, as China’s broader relationship with the United States continues to fray.
“The Chinese have held off for months on Xi traveling to North Korea because it’s such a strong signal of China’s geopolitical orientation,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former China adviser to President Barack Obama. “It signals that China has essentially given up on having a stable, mutually beneficial relationship with Trump.”
Even the meeting between Trump and Xi in Osaka is not yet nailed down. While American officials expect the two men to sit down, Chinese publications still refer to the meeting in hypothetical terms. Trump said recently that “it doesn’t matter” whether Xi meets him, since he will go ahead and impose tariffs on an additional $325 billion worth of Chinese exports if the two sides do not agree on a trade deal.
On Sunday, the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, said he did not expect a meeting between Xi and Trump to yield more on the trade negotiations than an agreement to keep talking, The Times noted.
The two leaders have both labored not to let tensions between their countries become personal. Xi recently referred to Trump as his “friend,” while Trump regularly proclaims his friendship with the Chinese leader, even as he notes that the two have sharply divergent interests.
Relations between China and North Korea are scarcely less tense. Xi’s visit would be the first by a Chinese leader in 14 years. After the North staged successful missile and nuclear tests, China voted at the United Nations in favor of tougher economic sanctions against the country, a position that has deeply rankled Kim.