China reasserted itself as a major player in the North Korea conversation this week after a surprise visit from Kim Jong Un.
It was an important meeting for both countries. North Korea is in the midst of preparations for summits with North Korea and possibly the U.S., which could dictate the future of its struggling economy. For China, it was a strategic move, which some analysts say could help Beijing's image as the gate keeper to North Korea.
"This puts China centrally back in the picture because they of course have real interest in how this dispute gets resolved," said former national security adviser Stephen Hadley in an interview with CNN. "Kim Jong Un - it does another thing, it shows that even though China joined with the US and other countries in adopting UN council resolutions, that China is still Kim Jong Un's ally."
China's decision to sign on to international sanctions against North Korea may sound counter-intuitive, but Kim's erratic behavior in the last few years has been a problem for Beijing as well Washington. Not only does China often end up supporting North Korea economically, Kim's recent nuclear and missile tests have drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, and the U.S. military.
The U.S. has been pivoting to Asia since the Obama administration, but Kim's provocations have caused the Trump administration to levy even more restrictive sanctions against the Kim regime while bolstering the U.S. presence in east Asia. That's something China does not want, as it continues to assert itself across the region.
China is North Korea's oldest ally, which has often given Beijing the appearance of being in some sort of control of the Kim regime. Historically, that hasn't been the case, according to Dean Cheng, a senior fellow specializing in Asia studies at the Heritage Foundation.
"The problem here is that, I think, there is this assumption that China somehow controls North Korea. And what we really have seen over the last 50 plus years, since the end of the Korean War, is a North Korea that has walked a careful line," said Cheng in an interview.
He noted North Korea never fell into the Chinese or Soviet camp during the Cold War, and has continued to push for its own independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China's a key partner, and has even helped keep the North Korean economy running in the past, but that doesn't mean Kim is taking marching orders.
"From China's perspective, North Korea is far from being a puppet. [It's] really almost as unpredictable for them as they seem to be for us," said Cheng. "The more North Korea is a problem child, and it really has been the problem child for the last five or six years, the more the U.S. presence is sustained, and even strengthened."
That may be something China is trying to alleviate as the Kim regime prepares for a summit with South Korea on April 27, and a possible meeting with the Trump administration in the near future. Their reasons might be very different, but a North Korea out of control isn't good for the U.S. or China.