TOKYO -- A Chinese diplomatic source said last week that "Xi Jinping will be the maestro of the U.S.-North Korean summit, even in absentia."
It was a difficult concept to digest. That the Chinese president will be pulling the strings of the historic June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sounded like Chinese wishful thinking.
But then on May 17, Trump himself seemed to back that theory hinting that he saw the hand of China behind North Korea's sudden change of tone toward South Korea and the Singapore summit.
"There has been a big difference since they had the second meeting with President Xi. If you remember, a few weeks ago, all of the sudden, out of nowhere, Kim Jong Un went to China to say hello, again, a second time, to President Xi," Trump told reporters, when asked about the prospects of the Kim summit. He was referring to Kim's May 7 and 8 visit to the Chinese city of Dalian.
"I have a feeling ... that, for various reasons, maybe including trade ...it could very well be that he's influencing Kim Jong Un. President of China, President Xi, could be influencing Kim Jong Un," Trump said.
Only days after the summit's date and location were announced, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency released a series of angry statements criticizing the presence of B-52 bombers in the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, and harsh words for Trump's hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton.
One release declared North Korea "a nuclear weapons state" and warned "If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the [Singapore] summit."
The aforementioned Chinese diplomatic source said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's recent visit to Japan was also closely aligned to Xi's diplomatic script. Xi had dispatched his premier to Japan to show the rest of the world that relations between China and Japan are growing warmer.
While in Japan, Li made a show of warmly greeting his hosts and even expressing gratitude to the Japanese media.
He avoided mentioning issues such as the two countries' history and the tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers, but China claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands.
"It has been 26 years since I last visited Japan," Li said.
That visit, in 1992, came at a time when Chinese leaders were still paying for their crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters.
The communist regime was isolated internationally due to the 1989 incident. Western democracies responded by imposing sanctions, and China quickly found itself in dire economic straits. To end its isolation, China needed to be on friendlier terms with the only Asian member of the Group of Seven rich nations, Japan.
So it came up with a plan, part of which involved inviting the Japanese emperor to China.
Emperor Akihito made the historic visit, which was a sensitive issue, considering the Imperial Japanese Army's role in China from 1931 to 1945. Former Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, who presided over the nation's diplomacy for years, revealed in his memoir that Beijing's invitation to Emperor Akihito was meant to help China break through Western sanctions.
When Li Keqiang visited Japan that year, he headed a glad-handing delegation of young Chinese leaders. Li, still in his 30s, stayed at the Iwate Prefecture home of Japan's political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa.
Like it did in 1992, China is now using its relations with Japan to gain a more prominent role on the global stage. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was also in Japan, which was hosting a trilateral summit. But Li visited as an "official guest," a higher status than Moon. Li also had an audience with Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo.
Li's four-day stay in Japan was one day longer than initially planned. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accompanied the Chinese premier on a trip to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, on the last day of his visit.
While in Hokkaido, Li and Abe attended a meeting of Japanese prefectural governors and Chinese provincial governors, toured a Toyota Motor parts factory and lunched together. It is unusual for a Japanese prime minister to accompany a foreign leader on such a tour. Abe saw off Li at New Chitose Airport.
Back in China, Xi has been getting to know Kim, who has made two surprise visits to the country ahead of his summit with Trump. The first came in March.
The visits have strengthened Xi's ties to Kim. The young North Korean leader has been eager to visit, seemingly because he believes it will give him negotiating leverage against Trump.
Xi is trying to prevent a situation where Kim would shrug off its big neighbor China, move closer to Trump and open a direct conduit that would allow American companies to bring jobs to North Korea. Japan would also move diplomatically closer to its neighbor.
Two months ago, Premier Li expressed a sense of crisis over the possibility of China being left out amid a spate of regional developments.
It was March 20 and Li was holding his annual press conference in Beijing. In an unusual move, Li spoke his mind about the situation. "The Korean Peninsula is in China's immediate neighborhood," he said. "China's own interests are at stake."
The fear of being sidelined explains why Xi is willing to overlook two big diplomatic snubs Kim delivered last year. On May 14, North Korea tested a ballistic missile. On Sept. 3, it carried out a subterranean detonation of what it said was a hydrogen bomb that could be carried by a ballistic missile. On each occasion Xi was hosting a major international conference. The tests seemed timed to cause Xi to lose face.
But China could be sidelined. The joint declaration issued on April 27, after Moon and Kim held their summit, refers to a three-party framework that includes the U.S. and the two Koreas, before mentioning an additional four-party framework that also involves China.
The best way to ensure China's voice to be heard is for Xi himself to travel to Singapore to join the Trump-Kim summit. There has been speculation that he may look to do that.
Were the Trump-Kim summit to turn into a Trump-Kim-Xi summit, Kim's backer would not only be by the North Korean leader's side, but Xi may be able to use it as leverage to resolve China's trade friction with the U.S., as Trump hinted in his comments on May 17.
But a Trump-Kim-Xi summit in Singapore is unlikely. Trump and Kim have little, if any, reason to share the spotlight with Xi.
A more realistic move would be for Xi to visit Pyongyang soon after the Trump-Kim summit.