Until very recently, China's paramount worry regarding the Korean Peninsula involved the possibility that the "cold" war that has endured since the 1953 armistice could might erupt into an all-out nuclear conflict.
But since Kim Jong Un signaled his willingness to negotiate with the US and consider abandoning its nuclear program, China has become more concerned about a suddenly US-allied North Korean reunifying with the South – or worse, pointing its missiles toward Beijing.
Ahead of talks between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set to begin Friday – talks that are widely viewed as a preamble to negotiations with Trump expected to take place roughly one month later – the Financial Times reported Wednesday that China is worried about being outflanked by the US in the ongoing battle of influence over the peninsula that started with the Korean War.
"Any bilateral deals could take place at China’s expense if Beijing doesn’t have a seat at the table," said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore and an expert on Chinese foreign policy.
The paranoia gripping Beijing is being articulated by China's cohort of geopolitical analysts, whose public views often mirror the privately-held beliefs of China's leadership. Since the US and North Korea first announced their intentions to engage in diplomatic talks, China has expressed cautious optimism over the prospects for a peaceful outcome. But Chinese officials have also insisted that the dialogue be replaced with the resumption of negotiations between Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington – also known as the "six-party talks" – which were last held in 2007.
"Many Chinese experts are worried about a re-unified Korea with a security alliance relationship with the United States and with US troops to stay on the peninsula," he said.
Although observers say such an eventual outcome is highly unlikely, China’s guard is up. Since the planned talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim were announced in March, China’s mantra has been that it welcomes dialogue, but bilateral talks with Pyongyang should soon be replaced with a resumption of negotiations that include Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. Known as the six-party talks, these were last held in 2007 and could be restarted as early as this summer, diplomats say.
With China excluded from the bargaining table, any number of outlandish scenarios seem possible in the fevered dreams of the China’s analyst community: from a reunification of North and South Korea under a US security umbrella to a suddenly pro-American North Korea with nuclear weapons pointed at China.
As the FT reminds us, China's worries aren't without precedent: Russia accused the US of breaking pledges it made during the reunification of Germany back in 1990 – a grudge the country's leadership harbors to this day.
Meanwhile, some analysts have cited the increase in oil supplies flowing to the North – in violation of US sanctions – as evidence that the North is still economically dependent on its historical benefactor.
Wang Chong of the Charhar Institute in Beijing, said the meeting between the two leaders meant "the settlement of the peninsula issue cannot be reached without China’s contribution… I do not think China is excluded. Only some countries take turns being out in front."
Mr Kim has gone out of his way to reassure China. Evoking their common socialist roots, a North Korean troupe performed a Chinese Cultural Revolution ballet called The Red Detachment of Women in Pyongyang last week.
When a busload of Chinese tourists crashed in Pyongyang on Sunday, killing 32, Mr Kim met with the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang to deliver condolences, and then went to the hospital to meet survivors — an unheard of step for the leader.
More likely than any grand bargain, say diplomats, is incremental progress towards dismantling its nuclear weapons programme and lifting of sanctions. "Kim is doing everything to secure his regime — he is not going to suddenly throw it all away for unification,"said one diplomat from an Asian country.
Not to mention the fact that China is still responsible for roughly 90% of the foreign trade flowing in and out of the reclusive Communist state.
The leaders of the world's second-largest economy have also been engaged in a battle of wills with President Trump over the US's demands that China abandon its purportedly "unfair" trade practices.
However, others are more suspicious of the North's motives. One analyst suspects the North is trying to play the US and China off each other and hoping the benefit by securing more flexibility for its nuclear program. After all, China has become steadily more critical of the North's nuclear ambitions in recent years as the country's scientists have come incredibly close to being able to manufacture a nuclear warhead capable of fitting atop one of the North's intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But in the latest sign that the North's sudden willingness to negotiate with the US might be some kind of geopolitical ploy, reports surfaced Wednesday morning that a crucial tunnel in the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site had finally collapsed.
This immediately aroused speculation that Kim might've had an ulterior motive for proclaiming the tests had been suspended. But at the very least, it calls into question Kim's motives for seeking the talks in the first place.
So, is China right to worry about Pyongyang cozying up to the US? Or is it Trump who is underestimating Kim's cunning.
What do you think?