China has sent its top diplomat to the United States amid the North Korea crisis. State Councillor Yang Jiechi, the nation’s top foreign policy figure, arrived in the U.S. on Monday at a time of what seems to be an irreconcilable beef between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Yang is the most senior Chinese official to visit the U.S. since President Donald Trump assumed office on January 20. Yang’s trip to the U.S. comes despite the uncertainty in relations between Washington and Beijing, as Trump, throughout his presidential campaign and since taking office, has pledged to take a tough stance on China and even vowed to slap the world’s second largest economy with tariffs on imported goods, a move that Beijing said would cause a trade war.

China United states
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But it seems that even the slightest volatility in North Korea-China relations is enough for Washington and Beijing to put aside their differences to focus on a much bigger and much more dangerous issue at hand: North Korea and its nuclear program.

Yang’s two-day visit to Washington might bear a message for the Trump administration that it’s time to do something about North Korea, which continues to fuel tensions with its neighbors. The regime is suspected of assassinating the half-brother of leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Nam, who was living in China and had been urging his brother to adopt Chinese-style reforms for North Korea, abandoning its dictatorship ideals and becoming a democratic nation.

China to persuade U.S. to abandon missile defense system

Yang’s visit to the U.S. is likely a message from Beijing for Washington to be open to talks on North Korea. To date, Washington has resorted to sanctions only when dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and avoided any contacts with Pyongyang whatsoever. Trump has previously vowed to speak to Kim Jong Un after assuming office, which may the reason Beijing believes the Obama administration’s sanctions-only policy on North Korea is on thin ice and it’s time to finally persuade the U.S. to talk to the nuclear-armed nation led by Kim.

Yang’s visit to Washington comes at a time when the U.S. is considering installing an anti-missile defense system in South Korea, a move that would not just infuriate North Korea but could actually trigger a military response from Pyongyang. China, for its part, is not happy about the idea of a U.S. missile system at its doorstep either. So convincing the U.S. to abandon its idea to station the anti-missile defense system in South Korea would not only prevent a furious response from North Korea but also make China happier.

Is China North Korea’s agent in the U.S. talks?

The whole situation gets even messier and more complicated when considering that Kim Jong Un is wholeheartedly confident that Beijing is opposed to seeing his regime toppled, as it would lead to a massive uptick of refugees sneaking across China’s border, or worse – creating a U.S.-backed unified Korea and potentially putting U.S. troops on China’s doorstep.

So whatever China will be persuading the U.S. to do regarding North Korea will likely be in the best interests of Kim Jong Un and his regime. China can, however, put Washington and Pyongyang in a room to agree on halting or shrinking North Korea’s nuclear program. The move would likely be opposed by Kim Jong Un, who sees nuclear weapons as his only defense against the West but would ultimately promote peace in the region.

China remains North Korea’s only major ally and economic partner. Beijing is Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner, as China accounts for about 90% of North Korea’s total trade volume ($5.7 billion in 2015). Beijing also remains Pyongyang’s largest supplier of oil, steel products and other critical commodities that help it survive.

Although Beijing has for years advocated for diplomatic talks between Washington and Pyongyang, Trump has repeatedly slammed it for not doing enough to restrain its nuclear-armed neighbor or persuade Kim to stop his nuclear activities.

Or is China abandoning its friendly relations with North Korea?

But Yang’s visit to the U.S. comes amid apparent shifts in China’s foreign policies regarding North Korea. Earlier this month, Beijing banned coal imports from North Korea for the rest of 2017, a move that would create grave difficulties for Pyongyang’s economy to keep it running efficiently.

Coal is North Korea’s main export and a constant source of foreign money pouring into Pyongyang’s fragile economy, allowing it to survive. But China’s decision to ban imports could mean that Beijing now wants to stand united with Washington against Pyongyang.

While the ban apparently serves as a cooperative gesture to the Trump administration, it will be up to Trump to decide whether or not he’s ready to follow through on his presidential promises and deal with the North Korean nukes through talks.

Turning point in North Korea-China relations

The transparent, yet cautious friendship between North Korea and China dates back to the Korean War, when the two nations fought together against South Korea and the U.S.

However, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang took a turn for the worse when Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, a year before Xi Jinping became China’s President. Interestingly, the two leaders have never met as leaders, which is another indication of strained relations between the two once-close allies.

For decades, Kim has been testing his country’s friendship with China by purging several key political figures who had strong ties to Beijing. That list included Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and possibly Kim’s half-brother, who was assassinated on Feb. 13. He was living in China and advocated for Chinese-style reforms.

While the assassination of Kim Jong Nam is enough to fuel tensions between North Korea and China, Pyongyang has engaged in other provocations recently. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests in the last decade and over 20 ballistic missile tests last year alone. On Feb. 12, the day Trump met with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, Pyongyang launched a new type of missile, apparently sending some sort of message to Washington.

Major obstacles to the North Korea-China-Trump talks

After China announced the coal ban, North Korea slammed its long-time ally for “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and pledged to continue its nuclear activities despite Beijing’s economic efforts that could suffocate Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities from within. While one could argue that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” and its sanctions-only policy towards North Korea has failed, the question now is whether Trump can make a difference by negotiating with Pyongyang directly.

While many agree that talks between Washington and Pyongyang may bring only a temporary freeze of North Korea’s nuclear activities in exchange for economic concessions, there’s practically no one who believes Trump – or any other U.S. President, for that matter – could convince Kim to denuclearize his country.

Negotiating with North Korea is no easy task, as previous negotiations with Pyongyang have shown that the country is willing to cheat, violate agreements, stall talks and make insensible demands. However, one could argue that there’s still one lever that could push North Korea to freeze its nuclear program: China, which is often viewed as the only thing keeping the Kim regime alive.

So the Trump administration’s task will be to persuade China that its long-term strategic interests would benefit from giving up its economic ties to North Korea, a move that could force Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program. However, there are several obstacles standing in the way of a China-U.S. united front against North Korea. They include Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, his previous pledges to oppose China’s activities in the South Sea and even his questioning of the One China policy, all of which are major matters of national importance for Beijing.