It was a powerful image – one of those moments that suddenly appears like a game changer: China’s President, Xi Jinping, striding out with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.
It sent a message: ‘who needs to wait for Donald Trump?’
This meeting is a reminder of just how closely linked Pyongyang and Beijing have been.
It has often been said that the relationship between China and North Korea is as “close as lips and teeth”.
It helped turn the tide of a conflict that has officially never ended: an armistice remains in place with tens of thousands of US troops on North Korea’s border.
With North Korea on war footing and hit by sanctions, China is its lifeline; its biggest trading partner – accounting for more than 90 per cent of North Korea’s total trade volume – and major supplier of energy and fuel.
Yet, ties between the old allies have frayed in recent years: Mr Kim has carried out nuclear and missile tests without notifying Beijing.
After last year’s missile launch China expressed “grave concern”, warning North Korea not to inflame tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing fears a collapse of the rogue regime, which could trigger hundreds of thousands of Koreans fleeing across China’s border.
Quoted in a US Committee on Foreign Relations report, China watcher Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth University, said: “While the Chinese would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, their greatest fear is regime collapse.”
In the same report, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen warned that “instability generated on the peninsula could cascade into China, making China’s challenge of providing for its own people that much more difficult”.
North Korea needs China in its corner
China has had to play a delicate game: maintaining pressure on Pyongyang but not tipping it over the edge.
Beijing has backed sanctions but watered down potentially tougher international restrictions.
For all its threats, North Korea knows it needs China in its corner.
Mr Kim has never travelled as leader outside of his country. This trip to Beijing sends a powerful signal.
He has chosen China to make his “coming out” on the international stage, Mr Xi is the first world leader Mr Kim has met.
This gazumps the planned meeting with Mr Trump, although Mr Kim continues to hold out the invitation to the American president.
Kim has already sought to build stronger ties with South Korea and won a public relations coup by sending his smiling sister and an army of cheerleaders to the recent Winter Olympics.
The two Korean teams – North and South – marched in as one.
We could be seeing a savvy political ploy by Kim Jong-un.
He has built his country’s fire power – now a nuclear armed state with the potential to strike the US – and now showing his diplomatic acumen.
It is a reminder that the Kim regime – now in its third generation – for all its undoubted brutality, is more shrewd and calculating than its cartoonish image in the West would suggest.
‘America will lose, China will win’
It is also a strong statement by Xi Jinping: China calls the shots.
Mr Kim has travelled to Beijing, Mr Xi did not go to Pyongyang.
China has always wanted to be the preponderant power in Asia, it is building a military to match its economic clout; it is extending its economic reach with its belt and road initiative – a new Silk Road – and asserting its territorial claims.
It is increasingly rubbing up against the United States, which has been the dominant force in the Asia Pacific for more than half a century.
Australian defence analyst Hugh White says simply in a power struggle in Asia “America will lose, and China will win”.
In his recent Quarterly Essay on China, Professor White writes that the “vision of regional order based on US power is directly contrary to China’s ambition to build a new order centred on Beijing”.
International relations expert, Michael Wesley, has charted the course of the decline of American influence in Asia in an essay for Australian Foreign Affairs journal. He writes: “the relative decline of American power has been obvious for the best part of a decade in Asia.”
Professor Wesley says the US has not been able to stem the rise of China, and now the election of Mr Trump raises new questions about America’s future in the region.
America is still the most powerful and economically dominant nation in the world, but its hegemony is being tested and it now has a plausible rival in China, especially in Asia.
US journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria, more than a decade ago, coined the term “the Post-American world”.
He wrote that the world was in the midst of a tectonic shift, America maintained military dominance but “in every other dimension – industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural – the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance”.
That image of Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, speaks profoundly to that shift.
Trump must reinforce US influence
When, or if, Mr Trump meets Mr Kim, China will have already staked its territory.
There can be no peace on the Korean Peninsula without America; the US leadership in Asia has been good for the region and the world; it has underpinned peace and prosperity and upholds democratic values that China eschews. Mr Trump needs to reinforce American influence not retreat.
The US President’s maximum pressure policy has put the squeeze on Kim Jong un and has played no small part in Mr Kim’s shift to diplomacy.
But Mr Kim leaves the meeting with Mr Xi knowing big brother has the little brother’s back.
When Mr Kim sits down with Mr Trump, Mr Xi will not be in the room but his shadow will loom large.