BY Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, June 17 (Yonhap) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to seize on his upcoming trip to North Korea to close ranks with its geopolitically crucial ally amid escalating tensions with the United States over trade, technology and on other fronts, analysts said Monday.
Xi's trip appears carefully organized to make sure that the North remains in China's orbit and highlight its influence over the impoverished neighbor in a sign that the North's communist regime can be used as a diplomatic card in its intensifying rivalry with Washington, they noted.
Xi plans to make a two-day state visit to Pyongyang from Thursday at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the North's state media reported. It marks the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has visited the North.
"Xi's trip this week does not appear to be just about the bilateral ties between China and North Korea. It indicates that (China) will use North Korea as a geopolitical card against the United States," Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.
"While highlighting the traditional alliance while in the North, Xi might send a tacit message to U.S. President Donald Trump that without China's cooperation, it would be difficult to solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum," he added.
The Chinese leader's plan for the trip to the North was made public after Trump said last week that he had received a "beautiful" and "very warm" letter from Kim -- an announcement that reignited hopes for the resumption of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump has repeatedly voiced his confidence in Kim and highlighted good relations with the North Korean leader, a move that observers said might have fueled concerns in Beijing that its ally, Pyongyang, could be tilting toward Washington.
"Amid the prospects of renewed momentum for dialogue between the North and the U.S. and for closer ties between the two sides, Xi might be itching for a stronger partnership with its communist ally," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of diplomacy at Inha University, said.
"A geopolitical game appears to be emerging over the North, which seems to enjoy an enhanced strategic value between the two major powers," he added.
Tensions between the U.S. and China have been rising in recent months.
They have been sparring over trade amid Washington's stepped-up pressure on Beijing to rectify what critics call unfair trade practices such as providing state subsidies to high-tech industries and demanding technology transfers from foreign firms for greater market access.
The friction has further escalated amid a U.S. campaign to prod its allies and partner countries to stop using communications equipment from Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which Washington believes poses security risks.
The U.S. has also touched on a taboo issue as the Pentagon included Taiwan on a list of "countries" to partner with in its recent report on its strategy for a free, open Indo-Pacific. This was construed as a subtle change in Washington's recognition of Beijing's "One-China" policy.
"Touching on the Taiwan issue appears to be something that goes beyond what is acceptable for China," Park of Handong Global University said. "With the great-power rivalry becoming full-fledged, China appears to be taking out the North Korea card, a core geopolitical one for Beijing."
But some observers said that China could be careful in its handling of the North's nuclear issue, as it is bound to face international criticism, including from Washington, should it hamper ongoing diplomacy for lasting peace on the peninsula.
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