China looks content to let U.S. President Donald Trump take the lead in the dialogue with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But if talks hit a snag, Washington and Pyongyang may turn to Beijing for help.
A Friday editorial in state-run newspaper Global Times "applauded" the summit, set to be the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean ruler.
The milestone meeting suits Beijing's interests, so President Xi Jinping isn't expected to interfere, analysts explained. Once a close ally of North Korea, the Asian giant has long supported de-escalation on the Korean peninsula and a moratorium on nuclear weapons.
"Beijing is getting what it wants without having to take a public role," said DJ Peterson, president of geopolitics advisory firm Longview Global Advisors.
"China also has to be sensitive toward the needs of North Korea: Kim wants to be on his own with Trump so for now, China is likely to respect that and remain in the background," he said.
Moreover, a Trump-Kim summit could produce strategic gains for Beijing.
"One possible outcome might result with Beijing accelerating its call for a reduction in the presence of U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea, as well as pressuring Seoul to reconsider the need for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system," said Chin-Hao Huang, assistant professor at Singapore-based Yale-NUS College.
"This gradual reduction of U.S. security and military presence in the region could be interpreted as a win for Beijing, but would only occur after U.S. consultation with Japan and South Korea."
How China could step in
If discussions between a Washington and Pyongyang get tricky, China could enter the process.
"Both sides will need China, especially if the talks hit a rough patch," noted Jim Walsh, a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has previously traveled to Iran and North Korea for talks with officials on nuclear issues.
"The U.S. will want China to lean on the DPRK; the DPRK will want China to make its case to the Americans; and both will want [China] to be part of whatever political settlement is achieved, if one is achieved," Walsh said.
Beijing is Pyongyang's largest trading partner, but Xi's administration has increased sanctions enforcement against the reclusive regime. Bilateral trade in January fell to its lowest level since June 2014 in dollar terms, according to official data.
"If the talks were to fail, or appear to be unraveling, at that point we could see Beijing move out of the background and try to play a more important role," Peterson said.
But before that happens, he believes China could "attempt back channel communications with North Korea to help ensure a favorable outcome with talks."
"I wouldn't necessarily term this as advising or counseling Kim Jong Un, I would say it will be more like pleasant background music," Peterson stated. "For instance, they could tell their North Korean counterparts to manage expectations and think of talks in terms of long-term strategy."
But if the North were to ally with Washington, China would surely step in.
Such a scenario "is not beyond possibility," according to Walsh, who said he's "heard talk like that from North Korean officials over the years." China would surely attempt to prevent such an arrangement, he added.
Friday's editorial in the Global Times dismissed concerns of China "being marginalized" in the peace process, stating that it is unnecessary for Beijing to worry about North Korea "turning to the U.S."