In early June 2016, the Xinhua News Agency issued a press release: Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of China, met with a North Korean delegation led by Ri Su-yong, a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) Politburo and the country’s minister of foreign affairs. 

According to the Xinhua report, the main objective of Ri’s visit was to inform the CCP of the major decisions that the Seventh Congress of the WPK made when it concluded in May, as well as to convey a message from WPK Chairman Kim Jong-Un to President Xi. Kim expressed his wish to not only reinforce but also deepen the long-standing friendship between China and North Korea, and insisted that the two nations should cooperate to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Xi acknowledged that Ri’s visit carried on the tradition of China and North Korea holding bilateral meetings to exchange strategic views on national security issues. Xi highlighted the importance of China-North Korea collaboration to the CCP and reiterated Chinas stance toward security tensions on the Korean Peninsula—namely, that all relevant parties ought to keep calm, exercise restraint, and engage in talks to uphold peace and stability on the peninsula. 

Official Meetings as a Diplomatic Barometer

On the surface, the WPK delegation’s visit to China is part of the routine communication channels between the two countries’ ruling parties. In fact, the day before Xi met with Ri, the head of the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee, Song Tao, held a meeting with Ri as well. Both sides promised to cherish the long-standing friendship between China and North Korea, strengthen communication and cooperation between the two parties, and together endeavor to solidify China-North Korea relations and consolidate regional stability. However, in the context of long-term bilateral ties, one can detect a palpable change in the China-North Korea relationship and surmise the strategic ramifications of this shift. 

First of all, the timing of this meeting appears to have been rather special. In recent years, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have continued to escalate; North and South Korea seemed to be on the brink of war on multiple occasions, and the prospects of successfully resolving the nuclear crisis remain unpromising. During the Seventh Congress, North Korea passed a resolution claiming that the country is determined to continue focusing on the two goals of fostering economic development and building nuclear arms and related facilities. According to a report from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, on May 31—the very day Song and Ri met—the Korean People’s Army launched another Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) test off the country’s east coast. Given the complex and strained circumstances surrounding it, Ri Su-yong’s visit to China was clearly of profound significance. 

Furthermore, such high-level meetings have in fact been quite rare over the past few years. In 2013, when Pyongyang unilaterally conducted a ballistic missile test, China joined the rest of the international community in imposing sanctions on North Korea, which caused bilateral relations to cool. The last time that President Xi received a high-ranking North Korean official was back in May 2013, when an envoy of Kim Jong-Un named Choe Ryong-hae, who is also a member of the standing committee of WPK’s Politburo, visited China. When Choe returned to Beijing in September 2015 for China’s military parade to commemorate the end of World War Two, he did not have the opportunity to meet with Xi privately. Yet, Ri Su-yong, who is notably less politically influential than Choe, had the privilege to meet Xi this May. This clear contrast brings Chinas changing attitude toward North Korea into sharp focus. 

Moreover, there was a noticeable change in Beijings diplomatic stance between this meeting and past ones. According to information released by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Xi went no further than confirming that the China-North Korea friendship would advance both sides’ common interests when he last met with Choe in 2013, but Xi also continued to stress Chinas commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. From the viewpoint of countries like South Korea and the United States, Xi’s statement was intended to pressure the North Korean government to abandon its nuclear program. In contrast, the word “denuclearization” failed to appear in the press release after the 2015 meeting. Instead, the 2015 press release prominently covered Xi’s hopes for greater solidarity between China and North Korea as well as praise for the Korean peoples progress in building a socialist state. The document’s wording not only reveals the CCP’s willingness to repair the relationship, but also avoids placing direct political or diplomatic pressure on North Korea. 

A Shared Interest in Improving Relations

While the May meeting between President Xi and Ri Su-yong served as a clear indication that bilateral relations are warming, it is reflected the two countries’ strategic interests. From China’s perspective, bilateral ties have remained relatively unstable since the young Kim Jong-un came into power in 2012. The relationship further deteriorated in 2013, when China joined the international sanctions regime that was imposed on North Korea. By comparison, cooperation between China and South Korea has grown quickly, with frequent high-level meetings, such as President Park Geun-hye’s controversial presence at the September 2015 military parade in Beijing, as well as the successful signing of a bilateral free trade agreement. But South Korea has again been discussing with the United States the possibility of deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system since earlier this year, and this has drastically impeded progress in China-South Korean relations. On April 29, the Chinese and Russian ministers of foreign affairs, Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov, together announced a new consensus between the two countries about the current situation on the Korean Peninsula. The joint statement stressed that the possible U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea would directly threaten the strategic security of both China and Russia and would unbalance the situation and disrupt stability on the peninsula. Furthermore, the loss of South Korea’s ruling party, which is led by Park, in the country’s April congressional elections heightened uncertainty about the countrys future policy toward China. Under these circumstances, it is easier to understand China’s aim of thawing the relationship with North Korea as part of its endeavor to rebuild the strategic balance on the Korean Peninsula. 

From Pyongyang’s perspective, strict international sanctions over the years have significantly crippled North Korea’s domestic economic growth and social stability, challenging the legitimacy of the Kim regime. Restoring an amicable relationship with China at this point would both consolidate Kims new domestic power structure following the Seventh Congress and relieve the heavy economic pressure stemming from international sanctions. For these reasons, some analysts may regard Ri’s visit to China as North Koreas latest attempt to poke holes in these economic restrictions. 

Certainly, the warming of China-North Korea relations does not necessarily imply that China-South Korea relations are cooling off. In fact, Beijing and Seoul have already established remarkable common interests and opportunities for cooperation in the areas of economics, politics, and security. Moreover, China still insists on promoting the denuclearization of the peninsula and resumption of the Six-Party Talks— this likely means that the healthy direction of China -South Korea relations is unlikely to change. 

China’s Foreign Policy: New Challenges and Opportunities

On a broader strategic level, improving China-North Korea relations is an inevitable response to the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, especially in light of intensifying competition in the South China Sea. In recent years, the United States has rapidly implemented this policy, not only in terms of military pressure on China but also by way of signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to impair Chinas leading position in East Asian economic markets. 

This trend has become more apparent in 2016, and as a result China faces the most pressing security environment it has encountered since 2010. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula persist, improvements in China-Japan relations continue to lag, friction in the South China Sea is escalating, and more uncertainty has emerged as to the future of cross-strait peace with the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen assuming office in Taiwan.

In a February 2016 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi outlined the ministry’s upcoming priorities, which include playing a more proactive role in serving China’s own development needs and participating constructively in efforts to address pressing international and regional issues. More specifically, he stressed that, in East Asia and the Western Pacific, Chinas strategic objective has never been to seek hegemony or expansion, but to preserve national security and regional peace with a more proactive, firm attitude. 

The meeting between President Xi and the North Korean delegation in May seemed to slightly shift the strategic balance in East Asia, but more importantly, it exemplified Chinas resolve and confidence in its current foreign policy agenda. 

Jin Feng is a post-doctorate assistant researcher at Tsinghua University’s Center for U.S.-China Relations. 

This article was first published in Chinese by Tsinghua University’s THU 27 Center.