Analysts say China is doing whatever it can to make sure it’s not sidelined as the US works to build a relationship with North Korea.
China might not be at the negotiating table, but it will be closely watching the US-North Korea summit in Singapore.
For Beijing, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Denuclearisation would ensure peace and stability in the region but a closer relationship between North Korea and the US could pose a threat.
Whatever the outcome, analysts say China is doing whatever it can to make sure it’s not sidelined in the process.
A bridge in China’s Dandong city connecting the country to North Korea once bustled with trade. It's now primarily a tourist hub due to UN sanctions.
But ahead of the summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, traders in Dandong city are optimistic for a return to business as usual with North Korea, once described by Mao Zedong as being as close to China as “lips and teeth.”
Tong Zhao, from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Institute of Public Policy in Beijing, tells SBS News it's an alliance with a long history.
“They fought together during the Korean war. China sacrificed a lot of soldiers in that fight. The relationship between China’s first and second generation of paramount leaders was also very good very close. So that created a foundation for a special relationship,” he says.
This friendship frayed after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 and began nuclear weapons testing. But since the announcement of nuclear talks, first with South Korea in April and the upcoming meeting with the United States in Singapore, relations have warmed.
The North Korean leader made not one, but two visits to China in the space of 40 days.
The first was a visit to Beijing in late March, Kim’s first official meeting outside North Korea. The second was in the Chinese city of Dalian last month.
Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, says Beijing’s support is crucial ahead of the summit.
“He wants to have China in his corner, or at least show China is somewhat supportive of him and he’s not in this alone. And ultimately China has some red lines. Those would include any war or chaos on the peninsula,” says Mr Kovrig.
Any military action against North Korea - or additional UN sanctions should talks with the United States break down - would be impossible without Chinese input.
Mr Kovrig says for Beijing, closeness with the North ensures its own interests are protected.
“Trump meeting Kim is a huge risk from China’s perspective. Two unpredictable leaders, who knows where it’s going to go? What China would like to see happen is that kicks off a longer process of diplomatic negotiations. I don’t think China expects that realistically Kim and Trump are going to solve everything in one conversation," he says.
Unnerved by weapons on its border and the possibility of relations with Pyongyang souring once again, Dr Tong says China’s main goal is for the North to denuclearise. But Beijing believes this is unlikely to happen without economic growth or a formal Korean peace treaty.
“China understands why North Korea feels it has to have nuclear weapons to safeguard its regime’s survival. Even though China wants to see North Korea denuclearise as soon as possible China knows North Korea is a very paranoid country and due to its political ideology it won’t easily give up its nuclear weapons very soon,” says Dr Tong.
China believes the best way forward is to help the North economically and is doing what it can without violating UN sanctions. Air China recently resumed flights between Beijing and Pyongyang and even provided a jet to fly Kim to Singapore.
Chen Xiaohe, an academic from Beijing’s Renmin University, says it proves China isn’t trying to thwart talks, as a recent tweet from Trump implied.
“After Kim confirmed his meeting with Trump, China offered all kinds of help. So China is an active supporter of these summits, not a troublemaker,” says Professor Chen.
Professor Chen is predicting a successful summit and a return to healthy trade relations between Beijing and Pyongyang in the near future.
“After the cancellation of the UN sanctions, China and North-Korea will realise the normalization of the economy immediately," he says.
Dr Tong, however, believes the Singapore summit will more likely result in a positive symbolic agreement where both parties agree to “kick the can down the road.”
And he says China will be watching warily should the US continue to speak directly with North Korea whilst Pyongyang remains armed.
“China is very concerned about the US making use of North Korea as a strategic balancer in this region to hedge against the rise of China. The top priority for China then becomes how to make sure North Korea has a closer relationship with China than the United States,” says Dr Tong.