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Is China being left behind in US-N.Korea sparring?

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Beijing, China | AFP | As the United States and North Korea exchange fiery words over the regime’s growing weapons programme, China — the North’s biggest ally and trade partner — has receded into the background.

Donald Trump had been publicly prodding China for months to use its influence on Pyongyang, but this week the US president pointed his verbal salvos directly at North Korea, warning of “fire and fury” if it endangered the United States.

That prompted a defiant Pyongyang to threaten a missile attack on Guam, a tiny US territory in the Pacific that is home to major US air and naval facilities.

The bellicose rhetoric overshadowed Beijing’s calls for restraint and political dialogue.

“Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time,” the state-run Global Times tabloid conceded in an editorial on Friday.

Here are three questions and answers on China’s conundrum:

What is the best-case scenario for China?

China has consistently sought the resumption of the “six-party talks” (alongside Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and the US), which collapsed in 2009 but could trumpet Beijing’s role as a mediator.

“Beijing could play the role of a chairman at these talks and boost its influence not only regarding North Korea but also South Korea and Japan,” political analyst Willy Lam told AFP.

“This would bolster its claim to semi-superpower status.”

China responded Friday to the US and North Korea’s latest provocations by once again urging “caution.”

The US and North Korea should avoid “going down the old path of alternately showing strength and continuously escalating the situation,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

But China’s repeated proposals for peaceful dialogue appear to have fallen on deaf ears as the United States and North Korea ramp up the rhetoric.

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