BEIJING (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding this weekend but will send a top ally to represent him instead, the ruling Communist Party announced Tuesday.
Speculation had swirled over whether Xi would attend the celebrations following three visits to China this year by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Analysts said a decision by Xi not to travel to Pyongyang would indicate that Beijing expected further actions from Kim, including real signs of progress toward denuclearization.
The party's International Department said Xi would be represented by Li Zhanshu, the party's third-ranking official and head of China's rubberstamp parliament.
While China-North Korea relations have improved this year following a prolonged chill, China remains committed to U.N. economic sanctions placed on the North over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons testing programs.
The celebrations in Pyongyang also come as U.S. President Donald Trump has blamed Beijing for the slow progress of denuclearization, suggesting that China has been encouraging North Korea to drag its feet with denuclearization to gain leverage against the U.S. in a trade dispute that has seen both sides leveling tariffs on $50 billion of each other's products.
Last week, Trump tweeted that North Korea "is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government," adding, "This is not helpful!"
China wasn't having any of it. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington should "engage in self-reflection and stop flip-flopping and blaming others."
"Regarding America's attempts to pass the buck, I'm sorry, we'd rather not accept," Hua told reporters.
China has already distanced itself somewhat from its significant cooperation with the U.S. on North Korea. After supporting tough U.N. sanctions and scaling back trade with the North after it ramped up nuclear and missile tests last year, Beijing has eased the pressure on its neighbor slightly.
No Chinese head of state has visited North Korea since President Hu Jintao met with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in 2005, a time when Beijing was urging the North to reform its economy and take part in six-nation denuclearization talks.
When the younger Kim took power in 2011, exchanges slowed as Kim sought to assert his independence and China grew impatient with Kim's nuclear and missile tests. Ties frayed last year when China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang and suspended coal and iron ore imports.
That made Kim's three visits to China this year all the more striking, a sign that the relationship was back on track.
A visit by Xi on such a symbolic occasion would have further underscored the unique historical ties between the two countries' ruling parties. Mao Zedong sent Chinese troops to aid North Korea after the Korean War began in 1950, setting up a relationship once described as being "as close as lips and teeth."
Xi could have also used the opportunity to reassert China's claim to a place at the table when key decisions are made concerning Pyongyang's relationships with both Washington and South Korea, including over a possible formal end to the Korean War. Beijing is determined to ensure its interests are honored, especially its desire to maintain the viability of Kim's regime and keep U.S. and South Korean forces far from its border.
"I think Beijing is worried that North Korea will go its own way and work out new relationships with Washington and Seoul and move out of China's orbit," said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, described a decision by Xi not to go as a "strong signal," indicating that "North Korea has a lot to do to get back in China's good graces."
Still, his appointment of a high-ranking official such as Li as his envoy appeared to indicate ties remained basically on track.
Kim's visits to Beijing displayed all the customary pomp and circumstance bestowed on his father and grandfather. A separate visit to the northern port of Dalian showed the two leaders strolling along the beach and chatting amid lush gardens — all apparently intended to imply a warm personal relationship between them.
Diplomats say Beijing continues to implement U.N. sanctions on exports of coal, iron ore, seafood and other products. In one area not covered by the sanctions, however, it seems to be cutting Pyongyang some slack: tourism.
Recent visitors to North Korea say numbers of Chinese visitors have exploded in recent months, with busloads turning up at key spots such as the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas and Mount Paektu, which touches the country's border with China.
China is likely advertising the potential benefits of North Korean compliance farther down the line.
"China has a strategy of trying to prevent North Korea from straying too far," Delury said. "This relationship is full of mutual distrust, but they keep it within certain bounds."