State Councillor Yang Jiechi, often described as China’s top diplomat, will visit the United States at the invitation of the US government on Monday. Jiechi is the most senior Chinese official to visit the US since President Trump took office and his two-day trip comes as tensions bristle with North Korea and its neighbors.
Its nuclear weapons program is advancing and the regime is suspected of assassinating the estranged brother of leader Kim Jong Un.
Tong Zhao, an associate at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy speculated that Jiechi will try and persuade the US government to be open to talks.
Beijing has long advocated diplomatic talks but Washington has stayed focused on sanctions, with Trump repeatedly saying China isn’t doing enough to rein in its unruly neighbor.
Earlier in February, China said it had banned North Korean coal imports for the rest of this year — a move that was widely interpreted as a cooperative gesture to the new administration and as a way to shift pressure to act back on Washington.
Coal is North Korea’s main export and an important source of foreign currencies for its fragile economy.
China’s move will test whether Trump really is willing to do something about North Korea’s nukes — the President has vowed to deal with North Korea and his administration is conducting a policy review.
Informal talks scheduled for next week, between a North Korean delegation and a team of former US officials, have been canceled after the Trump administration revoked visas.
Even though the government wouldn’t have taken part, the talks could have demonstrated that the Trump administration was more open to US engagement with North Korea, said Zhao.
“There was hope in China that the talks would happen,” he said.
But while China may be fed up with North Korea, that doesn’t mean China is ready — or able — to rein in its unruly neighbor or coax it to the negotiating table on terms the US would approve of. Beijing is opposed to any scenario where the regime topples — leading to a massive influx of refugees and potentially US troops on China’s doorstep.
Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is also skeptical that China’s coal ban is really that and says that China could still do more damage to its neighbor. “US and Chinese priorities do not match up on North Korea,” he said. “And I haven’t seen anything that suggests China is taking a different approach.”