Xi Jinping's strategic patience of not meeting with Kim Jong-un for the last four years is a double-edged sword. While it gives the appearance of isolating North Korea, it also projects an image of a powerful leader not being able to manage a smaller country in its "backyard," borrowing China's own word. With American strategic patience with North Korea turning out to be negligence of this serious geopolitical affair, the goddess of power politics is now giving room for Xi to have his shot. Xi should grab this chance. And there is good policy logic for Xi to make the move.
First, no major world leader has yet to meet with Kim Jong-un. As a result, we don't have reliable information about him and his intentions, especially at this critical time when he is speeding up nuclear and missile capabilities. We hear about Kim Jong-un from American basketball player Dennis Rodman; we hear about Kim Jong-un from Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto. We certainly need better intelligence on the dictator. In this regard, Xi should meet with Kim to size him up and find out Kim's next move.
Second, China's concern that the Xi-Kim photo-op would make Washington and Seoul angry is duly acknowledged, but it may be an overstatement, given the current volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula where the war rhetoric is back and the tension is high. The region needs a constructive peace broker. America is suffering from "pre" traumatic stress disorder symptoms of a possible Trump presidency. South Korea is, well, you know, mired in a domestic scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye. Xi is also preparing for his second term next year sorting out a number of laundry lists, but all signs show that he will have a smoother transition, compared to what South Korea and the U.S. leadership must go through. And it's also good for China to feel solicited to serve as a leader when there is a leadership vacuum.
Third, to be more specific and to earn broader international support for the Xi-Kim summit, Xi can communicate this idea to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo and get their understanding, as well as coordinate the summit – to make it a multilateral agenda. Xi can earn Kim's personal pledge and Kim can either show his willingness to denuclearize or initiate a stopgap and not engage in further nuclear and missile tests. Given the present nefarious situation, that should suffice as a good diplomatic first step that will earn international support. China also gets credit from North Korea as well, as the summit will be seen in North Korea as Kim's official and belated debut in international politics.
Fourth, Xi's move will strengthen his foreign policy portfolio: "neighborhood policy" (zhoubian waijiao). The neighborhood policy is one of Xi's two-pillar foreign policy platforms, the other being the diplomacy toward great powers, especially toward the United States. However, with the ongoing territorial disputes with neighboring countries ― Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and even with South Korea recently over the THAAD issue ― Xi has been under increasing criticism, even within China, for not producing good outcomes with China's neighborhood diplomacy. North Korea is also China's neighbor. North Korea is his opportunity.
Xi Jinping has his reasons for his strategic patience with Kim Jong-un, which is different from America's. The American strategic patience was born out of America's not prioritizing the North Korean issue, as it prioritized the Middle East. Xi's is at the more personal level; he doesn't see North Korea's young leader Kim on equal footing with him. Xi, who carries the big power mentality, sees Kim as the leader of a small country who should listen. Xi is 31 years older than Kim. In the Asian cultural canopy, where age and respect go together, Xi is a father figure and the young Kim should show his respect to the elder.
Yet Kim decided not to play the junior role in the duo's relational dynamics. The early attempt by Xi's strategists to influence Kim backfired. China used the form of firm warnings in the days leading up to North Korea's third nuclear test in 2013. The Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned North Korean Ambassador Ji Jae-ryong twice to scrap the test. China's state-run Global Times warned Pyongyang that there would be a "heavy price" if the test went ahead. It also threatened that China would cut off aid.
Kim responded by killing North Korea's most famous pro-China politician: his uncle. Even though the case of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle, was a domestic affair, China sensed there was the Chinese angle Kim may have wanted to send. In fact, China initially underestimated Kim, who was young and inexperienced. It was widely thought that Jang was the real power broker in North Korea. Killing Jang helped Kim sculpt his image as the bona fide leader in North Korea.
Xi and Kim still have the "face issue" of who didn't show respect to whom. Xi appears to be in a position that a summit may be possible only when Kim comes to visit him in Beijing, not the other way around.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org