Experts believe Beijing may come to see North Korea as leverage for challenging Washington's position on multiple issues, including the U.S. goal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
"In light of the great power competition, China sees North Korea as leverage more than ever," said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
If, for example, the U.S. wants China to support additional sanctions on North Korea, "China is unlikely to comply unless (the) U.S. reciprocates on some other fronts," she added.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, "Because of the downturn in U.S.-China relations, some in the PRC probably see the DPRK, which shares China's opposition to the U.S. military presence in the region, as a strategic asset, even if North Korea's nuclear status makes the Chinese nervous." DPRK stands for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and PRC stands for China's official name, the People's Republic of China.
Revere continued: "With the growth of Sino-U.S. rivalry, this view is likely to remain for the foreseeable future."
China, like North Korea, wants to maintain "the absence of U.S. forces near China's border," according to a Pentagon report released earlier this month on China. The U.S. has approximately 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
Patrick Cronin, the Hudson Institute's Asia-Pacific Security chair, says he does not think Beijing views North Korea's nuclear weapons "as an asset," but it "seems happy to exploit" North Korea's existence to divert attention from itself and "keep the United States busy with multiple challenges."
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told VOA's Korean Service in an email on Thursday that "China has all along been committed to maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, realizing denuclearization, and resolving problems through dialogue and consultation."
The spokesman continued: "To settle the Peninsula issue requires a balanced solution to the legitimate concerns of all parties. Parties concerned should actively work for the two major goals of denuclearization of the Peninsula and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Peninsula by following the dual-track approach and the principle of phased and synchronized actions.
"China will continue to work with all parties to make unremitting efforts to promote the political settlement of the Peninsula issue and achieve stability on the Peninsula in the long run."
Rivalry between Washington and Beijing has intensified as China expands its global influence. Beijing is "willing to confront the United States and other countries in areas where interest diverge," said the Pentagon report.
Countering China's military assertion in the Indo-Pacific region, decoupling global supply chains from Beijing, and preserving a rules-based international order have been Washington's top priorities as it seeks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first one-on-one virtual summit as the leaders of their countries on Monday.
"The two leaders discussed the complex nature of relations between our two countries and the importance of managing competition responsibly" in order "to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict," said the White House. The two also discussed "key regional challenges, including DPRK," according to the White House.
"I have no doubt that the U.S. made clear its determination to denuclearize the DPRK" during the Biden-Xi meeting, Revere said. "There is also no indication that Xi offered to cooperate on North Korea in exchange for U.S. concessions in other areas. Previous Chinese statements have implied trade-offs like this, and this kind of a 'deal' would not sit well with Washington."
Hours after the Biden-Xi virtual meeting, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. and China needed to coordinate closely on North Korea.
"We have seen a series of tests by North Korea," said Sullivan at a webinar on Tuesday hosted by the Brookings Institution. "The United States has indicated we're prepared to engage good faith in diplomacy if North Korea is prepared to do the same, so coordination around that issue is also very important."
North Korea has tested multiple missiles in recent months, including rail- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Different positions on denuclearization
Experts also noted a diversion between Washington and Beijing on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
"China clearly does not share the same interest as the United States when it comes to denuclearization, Cronin said. And China's recent moves to expand its own nuclear arsenal suggests it has other priorities."
The Pentagon estimated China could have 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030, according to its report.
According to Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Chinese priorities have been "no war" on the Korean Peninsula, "no collapse" of the North Korean regime that could trigger refugee inflow into China, and "no nukes." In contrast, U.S. priorities have been "no nukes, no war."
"Differing priorities illuminate the limits of cooperation and tactical differences in diplomacy toward denuclearization," said Manning.
China's push for sanctions relief
China, North Korea's most significant trading partner, has been pushing for sanctions relief for Pyongyang. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council target nuclear weapons proliferation activities and human rights violations.
Patricia Kim, a fellow with expertise in Chinese foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said divergent U.S. and Chinese priorities on North Korea have resulted in the two having "different views on the sequencing of denuclearization and sanctions relief."
China's priority to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula led it to focus "first on North Korea's political and economic integration into the region," Kim said.
China, with Russia, urged the U.N. Security Council to lift several economic sanctions on North Korea in a draft resolution submitted earlier in the month.
The diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang has been stalled since their October 2019 meeting in Stockholm.
The Biden administration has been offering talks with North Korea "without preconditions," but Pyongyang has largely resisted the offer.