China isn’t officially represented in the historic talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but that hasn’t stopped Beijing from making its presence felt.
Kim arrived in the city state on Sunday aboard a Boeing 747 operated by Air China Ltd., China’s state-run flagship carrier. The flight was both a potent display of China’s industrial might — and a message that the country had North Korea’s back.
“All these symbols are worth reading into,” Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told a panel discussion on Monday in Singapore. “China continues to have a major stake in the Korean Peninsula,” he said, and it “seems to be ready to support north Korea.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping —who also travels on an Air China 747 — has a lot at stake in the first-ever talks between a sitting US president and a supreme North Korean leader. If they fail, Xi will be looking to avert chaos or conflict on his border. If they work, he risks an old ally being drawn closer to America.
Xi’s contribution of the jet was necessary because Kim lacks the aircraft and military reach needed to ensure his safety on the almost 3,000-mile journey from Pyongyang to Singapore. That’s one reason he wants to end international sanctions and develop his economy. Air China shares rose 1.1 percent in Hong Kong trading on Monday, outperforming a 0.3 percent gain in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.
Accepting such Chinese support might be seen as an admission of weakness for a leader whose image is based on the philosophy of “Juche,” or self-reliance. Interestingly, North Korea made no attempt to conceal the contribution, publishing a photo of Kim exiting the jet in the regime’s main newspaper on Monday and repeatedly mentioning the “Chinese plane” in state media reports.
China’s foreign ministry, however, would only provide a short statement on the plane, despite repeated questions at a regular news briefing in Beijing.
China has repeatedly sought to assert it’s crucial role in the talks. As North Korea’s largest trading partner, China’s enforcement of United Nations
sanctions helped bring Kim to the negotiating table, while also shielding his regime from Trump’s threats of military action.
In the run-up to the summit, Kim visited China twice to meet with Xi. During their March meeting in Beijing, Xi told Kim that China had made a “strategic choice” to have friendly ties with North Korea, and that they would “remain unchanged under any circumstances.”