The developments since the theatrical summit between American President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may have dented Trump's self-claimed deal-making prowess. But China, North Korea's patron, must have been relieved.
Contrary to Trump's claims, the Kim's post-summit behavior suggests, as Beijing expected and most likely endorsed, that the "denuclearization" talks between the U.S. and North Korea will be a protracted process with uncertain outcomes.
Indeed, signs of trouble emerged no sooner than Trump claimed that, thanks to his personal diplomacy, North Korea has ceased to be a nuclear threat. When American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Pyongyang in early July to start the substantive phase of the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, he apparently ran into a brick wall. Instead of getting any firm commitment from his interlocutors to the specific and essential steps of denuclearization (most importantly, a full declaration of North Korea's nuclear facilities and arsenal), Pompeo's trip yielded worse than nothing.
The North Korean government not only rejected whatever demands made by Pompeo during his talks in Pyongyang, but also denounced them as "gangster-like." Worse still, satellite imagery shows that, in spite of their "denuclearization" rhetoric, the Kim regime has actually been expanding its nuclear facilities in recent months.
Perhaps out of fear that such diplomatic hardball might be too much for Trump to stomach, Kim quickly sent an effusive personal note to Trump. Although it did not mention "denuclearization" at all, Kim's sweet-nothing letter did offer Trump another opportunity to tout the nonexistent diplomatic progress with Kim.
While Trump is doing his best to keep the talks with North Korea going despite the unpromising initial signs, he seems to be increasingly displeased with China, which he suspects is undermining his diplomatic venture. Indeed, Washington recently accused China and Russia of violating United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
If anything, Chinese leaders must be amused by the displeasure of Trump, a man who sees the world as a jungle where only raw power counts. If the Chinese (and the Russians) are indeed guilty of trying to insert themselves into the Trump-Kim show, that is because Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, also see the world in the same way as Trump.
In the case of China, its short-term top priority is to turn the Trump-Kim duet into a Trump-Xi-Kim trio. Beijing knows, as the saying goes, if it does not have a seat at the table, it will be on the menu. Given the enormous blood and treasure China has expended in keeping the Kim dynasty in business starting with the Korean War, it would be naive to expect Beijing to sit idle by as Washington barges into its strategic backyard and snatches away its client state with promises of peace, security and prosperity.
To be sure, when the Trump-Kim show began, it was quite evident that neither wanted Xi at the table. But soon it also became clear that, in reality if not in name, Xi has already grabbed a seat.
This can be seen by the three meetings Xi has held with Kim since the announcement of the surprise Trump-Kim summit (two before the summit and one immediately after). Kim probably understands better than Trump that he still needs China's support in dealing with the U.S. Despite Kim's aspirations to free his nation from Beijing's grip, he must be painfully aware that playing China off against the U.S. is the only way for him to achieve the impossible -- diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S., preservation of most of his nuclear arsenal, survival of his family dynasty, and escape from China's orbit. What may look like a clever tactical ploy for Kim ensures, in reality, that he must consult Xi constantly while trying to strike a deal with Trump at the same time.
If China now has a virtual seat at the table, its next objective is to keep the show on the road as long as possible. For Beijing, a quick collapse of the "denuclearization" talks between Trump and Kim would bring dangerous tensions back to the Korean Peninsula. A humiliated Trump would resume his "maximum pressure" approach while Kim would respond by testing more nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Buying time is crucial for both Beijing and Pyongyang. From Beijing's perspective, as long as there is enough progress for Trump to tout on Twitter, the situation essentially resembles the Chinese proposal of "dual freeze" -- suspension of North Korea's nuclear and missile tests in return of a temporary halt of U.S. and South Korean joint military exercises.
As for Kim, he is apparently trying to use the time gained by the talks to improve his nuclear arsenal so that, when the talks finally break down, he would have even more lethal weapons to deter an American military strike.
Even though Xi and Kim may share the same short-term objective of keeping Trump at the table, Pyongyang's penchant for brinkmanship could still wreck the show. The Kim regime has shown a tendency to poison the atmosphere with shrill rhetoric, often around the most important negotiations.
While this might be Pyongyang's favorite tactic to extract concessions, Beijing is likely to see it as foolish and risky. Given Trump's impetuousness and vanity, Kim's tactics could backfire disastrously. What China can do to at this delicate moment is to take the middle course. On the one hand, Beijing will give enough aid to relieve the sanctions on Pyongyang so that Kim could withstand Trump's pressure for instant results. On the other hand, Beijing maintains the ability to tighten its own screw on Pyongyang should Kim either behaves too recklessly or harms Chinese interests in his negotiations with Trump.
Based on the logic of such calculations, it is not hard to predict what is likely to unfold in the coming months. Kim and Trump would engage in ceaseless bickering over the key aspects of "denuclearization" and delivery of American rewards, with each step, however minor, consuming enormous diplomatic energy and valuable time. But each small step forward will entrap Trump even more deeply in an ultimately futile diplomatic exercise. While he can keep tweeting about his success in coaxing Kim to part with his nukes, everybody else knows that Kim has bested him. Yet Trump would still find it hard to simply walk away because he is loath to write off the political capital he has already invested.
Of course, like previous administrations that attempted to negotiate nuclear disarmament deals with North Korea, Trump would be forced eventually to decide when to cut his losses. What comes next could be a more dangerous Korean Peninsula. As far as China is concerned, the longer the Trump remains on the same stage with Kim, the better, because if Beijing can influence the process, it can also shape the outcome -- whatever it may be.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.