When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down in China last week, there was really only one burning question on Beijing’s diplomatic minds: what to do about North Korea’s “rocket man” Kim Jong-un.
With less than three weeks to go until the Communist Party’s national congress, all hands are on deck in the capital and throughout the country to ensure the gathering goes without a hitch. That means papering over potential conflicts abroad to ensure nothing detracts from the highly choreographed show at home.
To that end, Beijing has tamped down border tensions with India and mended fences with Singapore. It has hosted a grand summit for its Belt and Road Initiative in May, and another summit of emerging market economies in September.
But one big knot in diplomatic ties refuses to come loose: the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Kim has showed that he is willing and able to upstage China at key moments, mostly recently detonating what North Korea said was a hydrogen bomb just as Chinese President Xi Jinping played host to the leaders of four other major emerging economies at a BRICS summit in Xiamen in early September.
The Kim question has grown to eclipse all others between the world’s two biggest economies, raising uncertainties that are compounded by the unpredictability of US President Donald Trump.
Before his inauguration office in January, Trump took several shots at Beijing, calling China a currency manipulator and threatening punitive tariffs to tackle the trade imbalance. He also bucked protocol to take a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Relations between the world’s two biggest economies appeared to improve with a summit in Florida in April between Trump and Xi – until Pyongyang launched a series of missile and nuclear tests.
Now China and the US are locked in a debate over who should be responsible for contacting Kim.
Washington insists Beijing should do more to pressure Kim to give up his nuclear and missile ambitions, while China says the US and Pyongyang should sit down and talk.
“The North Korea problem is currently China’s biggest diplomatic challenge and will stay so in the foreseeable future,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“It has ramped up the complexity of the cooperative but competitive relationship between China and the US.”
As early as March, Tillerson said a military option was on the table. He repeated the assessment in mid-September, saying a “military option would be [the] one left if diplomatic efforts fail”.
China, meanwhile, has made it clear it is against any conflict occurring on its doorstep. Xi’s test is to find a way to de-escalate the tension before the party congress and Trump’s planned visit in November.
It will be a daunting task. Washington and Pyongyang have both given the cold shoulder to China’s suggestion that the US and South Korea suspend military drills off the Korean peninsula in exchange for Kim putting his nuclear and missile tests on hold.
The threat from Pyongyang has also spilled over into China’s relations with South Korea.
In response to the North’s sabre-rattling, South Korea has installed the US military’s THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system, technology that China says could be used to penetrate its defences. There are also calls in South Korea and Japan for the development of their own nuclear weapons.
Analysts said there was little China could do about these new challenges.
“China’s frozen relations with South Korea stem from the North Korea challenge, and therefore it will not be solved in the short term. I would not be surprised if it took one or two years. We will only see a change when there is a breakthrough in the North Korea problem,” Li said.
Amid the impasse, Chinese analysts have called on Beijing to start thinking out of the box and think the previously unthinkable.
Nanjing University international relations professor Zhu Feng has said earlier that China should prepare for the spectre of a unified Korea.
And Jia Qingguo of Peking University has suggested that Beijing talk to Washington and Seoul about the prospect of war on the peninsula, saying China and the US are already working together closely on North Korea.
“Fundamentally, the leadership of Trump and Xi has not changed Sino-US relations. But on the North Korea issues, both leaders have actually showed a closer working relationship when compared to the past,” Jia wrote in one of his earlier articles.
“China has been quite cooperative with the US on sanctions, but that will be it for now,” Li said.
“There are no signs that the two countries are doing contingency planning, say on the potential refugee problem if the situation worsens.”
Analysts have warned that while North Korea eclipses other problems, the underlying conflicts between the world’s two largest economies remain the same.
“The potential trade war between China and US is being overlooked. It is the core of Sino-US relations in the long run,” Li said.
Wang Junsheng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed, saying “the core is still about the economic ties and interests”.
Nevertheless, Beijing can afford to relax about two former diplomatic trouble spots.
High in the Himalayas, Indian and Chinese troops have pulled back to their default positions after a three-month stand-off triggered in June by Chinese roadworks near Doklam. The confrontation was the worst between the two in decades and prompted talk of war from both sides. Chinese military sources said the People’s Liberation Army was told to prepare for conflict.
Then, in late August, both countries agreed to “disengage”. Chinese state media said Indian troops had withdrawn from Chinese territory while Indian media said Chinese personnel had stopped building the road that set it all off.
Whatever the case, the settlement paved the way for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make the trip to Xiamen for the BRICS summit, where he and Xi publicly vowed to pursue peaceful bilateral relations and avoid future conflicts.
The pledges are important for the unity of BRICS, a Chinese initiative, but analysts said the difficulties between the two countries had only been swept under the rug.
“The problems ... are rooted in China’s neighbours feeling threatened by its emerging status. But the development of China will not stop, and there are conflicts rooted in history, so more conflict is unavoidable,” Wang said.
Beijing can also breathe a little easier over its relations with Singapore. Before Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went to the Chinese capital for a three-day trip last week, tensions between the two nations had simmered for months.
Beijing had been angered by Singapore’s support for an international tribunal’s ruling against China over the South China Sea last year, and relations between them worsened when Hong Kong impounded nine Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from a training exercise in Taiwan in November. Lee then stayed away from a Beijing summit for Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” in May.
But by last week things were looking a little different, with both sides underscoring cooperation in areas such as railways and belt-and-road infrastructure.
Li said China was trying to resolve tensions by finding common economic ground.
“Under Xi’s leadership, China is trying to manage these risks in its diplomatic relations by maximising the common economic interests between China and these countries, such as through the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” he said.
“But even with these tactics, fundamental conflicts cannot be completely eliminated.”
Two long-standing areas of potential conflict are the contested Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The areas have been flashpoints for China and its neighbours in the past but Li said they were unlikely to surface as a source of friction for the rest of this year.
“It is not likely that China will be as tough on the South China Sea as it has been in the past few years, because it has been able to secure its priority interests in these areas. In terms of the Diaoyu Islands, China is basically sharing jurisdiction with Japan and jointly managing it,” Li said.
“But China has been actively expanding reefs and building islands as well as facilities on the artificial islands ... China might complete projects already under way in the area but larger scale construction would put its diplomatic relations at risk again – something that’s not in its interests.”
However, Wang said the South China Sea had to the potential to again flare up.
“Whether this will become a big challenge for China [in the future] depends on whether neighbouring countries change their policies towards China ... It also depends on whether the United States will add fuel to the flames,” he said.