BEIJING — China on Friday voiced support for the decision by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet this spring to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
"We're glad that they have finally made this first step," said Geng Shuang, spokesperson for China's foreign ministry.
On the one hand, China's support makes sense. Beijing has been calling for a return to talks for years, as well as a freeze in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests and eventual denuclearization.
Last week Kong Xuanyou, China's top diplomat in charge of the Korean peninsula, went further, saying Beijing would "unconditionally support" a meeting between US and North Korean leaders, according to state media.
China is also displeased with the US military presence in Japan and South Korea, particularly the THAAD antimissile system. Many scholars in China see the North Korean nuclear issue as a convenient reason for the US to keep military bases in those countries, including more than 30,000 American troops in South Korea.
But the meeting between Trump and Kim will essentially cut China out, leaving Beijing in a position of uncertainty.
"The status quo on the peninsula has been frustrating for President Xi [Jinping], but at least China has an approach for managing it," said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser on North East Asia at the International Crisis Group. "If Kim and Trump make a deal without consulting Beijing, there could be complications when it comes to implementing it."
"China wants to avoid war or chaos on the Korean Peninsula," he added. "But it also wants to avoid an outcome in which the strategic balance in North East Asia shifts in Washington’s favor."
China has gone along with several rounds of increasingly tough United Nations sanctions, and its relationship with North Korea has deteriorated considerably over the past year. North Korea depends heavily on China, which is its most important trading partner. Analysts both inside and outside China say a top priority for Beijing is ensuring North Korea remains stable. But China says it cannot accept a nuclear North Korea, not only because of the risk of conflict, but also because it could fuel a military build-up in the region.
"China has been put into the role of observer," said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the Central Party School in Beijing. "Trump cannot represent China’s interests.”
The development could be a positive one, he said, but in the end, China will have to be part of any meaningful solution.