BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding next 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 after 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 rubber-stamp parliament.
While China-North Korea relations have improved this year after 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!"
Foreign ministry spokesman 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 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.
A Section on 09/05/2018
Print Headline: China president to sit out N. Korea anniversary rite