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opinion

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un’s latest visit to Beijing this week cannot obscure the fact that China, once the primary conduit between Washington and Pyongyang, is at risk of being largely left on the outside. The White House has eroded China’s leverage by establishing a direct telephone link — a virtual hotline — to Mr. Kim.

In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump, by directly engaging Pyongyang over a nuclear and peace deal, has effectively cut out the middleman, China.

Beijing, which values North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. military presence in South Korea, has reason to be suspicious of Mr. Kim’s overtures to the United States and the Trump administration’s direct dealings with Pyongyang. At the centre of Mr. Trump’s North Korea diplomacy is an effort to marginalize China’s regional role.

North Korea is China’s only formal military ally. A 1961 friendship treaty obligates China and North Korea to aid each other if attacked. But bilateral relations have soured since Mr. Kim assumed power in late 2011, and Chinese analysts criticized the pact as outdated.

Today, Beijing fears being sidelined in its own strategic backyard. It is apprehensive that, just as it turned against the Soviet Union after the its historic “opening” of relations with the United States under Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, its estranged ally, North Korea, could similarly switch allegiances. Mr. Kim, however, seems more interested in achieving a limited goal − rebalancing his foreign policy by mending fences with the United States so as to lessen North Korea’s economic and security reliance on its historical rival, China.

The path to North Korea’s denuclearization promises to be long and difficult. However, the Trump administration, by bypassing Beijing and establishing direct links with Pyongyang, has heightened China’s worries.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim his summit with Mr. Kim was a diplomatic windfall for China. They accuse Mr. Trump of making major concessions in exchange for securing vague commitments with no clear timelines. But the only concession Mr. Trump made − suspension of U.S. war games with South Korea as a gesture of good faith − is easily reversible if negotiations do not yield progress. Regular military training has not been halted.

To Mr. Trump’s credit, he correctly described the U.S.-led war games as “very provocative,” which simulate a full-scale invasion of North Korea every spring.

To be sure, in what became known as the freeze for freeze formula, Beijing last September proposed the suspension of the U.S. war games in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. It was Mr. Kim, however, who undermined the Chinese proposal by unilaterally declaring a test moratorium in April without any reciprocal U.S. concession.

Mr. Trump is right that transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship matters more than denuclearization. If the West encourages Mr. Kim’s efforts to modernize the North Korean economy, just as it aided China’s economic rise, it will help to moderate Pyongyang’s behaviour. Economic engagement can achieve a lot more than economic sanctions, which counterproductively accelerated North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

U.S. policy under Mr. Trump’s predecessors helped Beijing to play the North Korea card against the United States and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. Beijing also sought to string the United States along on North Korea, until Washington established direct contact with Pyongyang.

Alarmed by Washington’s diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang, Chinese President Xi Jinping has hosted Mr. Kim three times in the past three months. Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump, as they brace for a trade conflict, are both wooing Mr. Kim. But Mr. Trump’s diplomacy and direct link has given Mr. Kim − who has bristled at his country’s dependence on China and Beijing’s backing of United Nations sanctions against North Korea − new leverage with Mr. Xi on bilateral issues.

Even before Mr. Trump took office, a shift in America’s North Korea policy had become imperative, with the sanctions-only approach proving a conspicuous failure by encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities. Mr. Trump’s sanctions-with-engagement policy has sought to address that imperative by seizing on Pyongyang’s desire to unlock frozen ties with America and by exploiting the growing strains in the China-North Korea ties.

The new policy has initiated a process that, even if it does not clear the path to North Korean disarmament, is likely to undermine long-term Chinese interests. Indeed, by constricting China’s regional leverage and role, Mr. Trump’s direct diplomacy promises to positively change northeast Asian geopolitics.