BEIJING — As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepares for his meetings with the presidents of South Korea and the United States, China has found itself in an unaccustomed place: watching from the sidelines.
Worse, many Chinese analysts say, North Korea could pursue a grand bargain designed not only to bring the isolated nation closer to its two former Korean War opponents, but also diminish its reliance on China for trade and security.
Such an outcome — a reversal of 70 years of history — remains a long shot, amid doubts about whether the North would agree to relinquish its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Still, China finds itself removed from the center of the rapidly unfolding diplomacy, and unusually wary about Kim's objectives in reaching out to his nation's two bitterest enemies.
Kim's meeting with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is set for Friday, and a meeting with President Donald Trump — the first ever between leaders of the two nations — is expected to follow in May or early June. In a sign of just how much is suddenly on the table, South Korea recently confirmed that it was in talks with the North and with the United States about signing a treaty to end the Korean War, which halted in 1953, but never formally ended.
With events moving so quickly, and Beijing finding itself largely left on the outside, analysts said China and its leader, Xi Jinping, must at least consider what they called worst-case contingencies.
"The loss of prestige is a big problem for China and Xi, who wants everyone else to view China as an essential actor of international relations, especially in the Northeast Asian context," said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "Now, suddenly, China is no longer relevant."
In a declaration over the weekend that North Korea would suspend nuclear and missile tests, Kim spoke as if the North was already a nuclear power, and no longer needed weapons tests, a direct challenge to the Trump administration's stated goal of denuclearization. Washington has declared that the coming negotiations are about getting rid of the arsenal.
Still, Trump apparently wants to claim a place in history as the U.S. leader who formally ended the Korean War — even though he tweeted Sunday morning that he was not rushing into a deal. And Moon is eager to edge toward the reunification of the two Koreas. So China fears the outcome could be either a North Korea or a unified Korean Peninsula leaning toward the United States.
Since the 1950-53 Korean War, when China fought on the side of the North against the United States and its ally in the South, the alliances have been immovable. The North has provided a buffer for China against having U.S. troops on its border; the South serves as a base in the region for the U.S. military.
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The possible new alignment on the Korean Peninsula that most concerns Beijing is a loose unification between North and South Korea with U.S. troops remaining in the South.
As part of its conciliatory moves before the meetings, the North has dropped its demand for the departure of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in the South as a condition for denuclearization.
"A unified, democratic Korea aligned with the U.S. will be dangerous to the communist regime in China, though not necessarily the Chinese nation," said Xia Yafeng, a North Korea expert at Long Island University.
From China's point of view, a favorable outcome from the meeting between Trump and Kim may simply be a less dangerous version of the status quo, Xia said.
There could be a "nice photo" of the two men, with vague promises from the North Korean leader to get rid of his nuclear weapons, and then long negotiations in which China would have a big say, he said.
Analysts say young Kim has resented his country's economic dependence on Beijing.