Why China is keen for a US-North Korea rapprochement
Almost seven months on from the historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there seems to be momentum toward a second summit. Kim has just completed another meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he did before his date with Trump in June last year.
This is definitely a welcome move, not just for maintaining the continuity in the thawing of ties between North Korea and the US, but indeed it could produce a significant lowering down of tensions between the US and China.
There has not been any significant progress in US-Korea ties since the much-anticipated meet in Singapore, even though both leaders had expressed extreme happiness with the meeting and its outcomes, and also signed an agreement to move toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The agreement, even if very vaguely worded, open to different interpretations and without any time frame, was indeed significant as it was the first time the US and North Korea had agreed on the need to denuclearize the hotbed of tension.
The progress subsequently slowed down, as Trump moved on to “win” other key battles to “Make America Great Again.” North Korea believes that it has kept its part of the deal by very publicly dismantling a nuclear testing site, as well as another site for manufacturing missile engines.
North Korea has also refrained from conducting any more nuclear tests or missile launches and instead has focused on continuing to build trust with South Korea. Kim and his counterpart from Seoul, Moon Jae-in, are now regularly in touch and their meetings are no longer the headline-grabbers they were even a year ago.
Xi Jinping wants global attention to be focused on China’s achievements and would not want any incidents in the neighborhood to distract him.
Ranvir S. Nayar
While Pyongyang has at least partially delivered on its commitments, the US has not taken any steps and this is what Kim wants to see progress on. The US should have initiated moves to remove sanctions on North Korea, even if the impact of the initial easing of sanctions would have been more symbolic than real on the North Korean economy.
Even though China has been involved in an extremely bruising trade war with the US and the ties between the two superpowers definitely stand near recent lows, Beijing seems to have taken a positive approach toward diffusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and continues to facilitate talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
There had been expectations that China would hit back at the US by going slow on the peace process in the region, or by egging Kim to take a harsher stance toward Trump. This was because Chinese leader Xi is as keen as Trump to come across as a strong leader, indeed the strongest in the world, and the one who can make any other nation bow down and follow its commands. Neither of the two leaders can really afford a loss of face and that is one of the reasons behind the current tensions in their ties.
Surprisingly, however, not only did Xi not withdraw his support for an American rapprochement with North Korea, but indeed he has maintained his policy of playing a proactive role in building the peace.
This is perhaps because he expects the world, and especially the US president, would see China’s positive role as a peace offering to Trump. The Chinese seem to believe that, if they proactively participate in delivering a concrete and “historic” breakthrough in the Korean puzzle, it would give Trump a concrete achievement that he can boast about and present as his success.
By letting Trump claim the credit and the accompanying headlines, Beijing hopes that Trump would return the gesture and ease the measures that are beginning to significantly bite the Chinese economy.
Another factor in Beijing’s calculations could be that 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s rule in the country. Xi has lined up an amazing array of events all through the year to showcase China’s place as a global power in military, business and cultural terms. The events include a gathering of global leaders, the world’s largest flower expo, which will last over six months, and numerous cultural shows.
Xi would want global attention to be focused on China’s (and hence his) achievements and would not want any incidents in the neighborhood to distract him.
The North Korean economy cannot sustain for too long the pressures brought by UN sanctions. China has always been wary of the scenario where waves of North Korean refugees start crossing the border to escape starvation and economic crisis. That remains a possibility as long as the sanctions stay. Also, if Kim sees little gains from making peace with the US, he is likely to go back to his harsher stance, pushing the entire Northeast Asian region to the brink once again. This is indeed not the way that Xi would like to mark the landmark year during his reign.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.