How China’s failure to watch its own backyard let the US gain the upper hand with North Korea
Maximilian Mayer says the proposed US-North Korea summit points to the limitations of China’s power in the region and the dangers of a grand geopolitical vision that neglects problems in the country’s neighbourhood
The agreement between North Korea and the United States that both heads of state will meet for the first time in history to engage in face-to-face negotiation is a risky gamble. On the one hand, the news renewed hope that the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula might be resolved peacefully. On the other, a war seems almost unavoidable if the talks fail. Either way, the outcome will shape the future of East Asia in unexpected ways. While many observers overestimate China’s power, the surprise announcement reveals Beijing’s limited ability to shape the regional order.
US President Donald Trump escalated military threats against North Korea, including a veiled threat on Twitter to use nuclear weapons, while pressuring China, North Korea’s main economic lifeline, into strictly implementing the additional suite of UN Security Council sanctions. This policy is for many observers reckless, as it places millions of civilians in South Korea, Japan and other places at risk.
Yet, as operational preparations ensued at US bases in Japan, South Korea and Hawaii, South Korea used the short window of the Winter Olympic Games for a peace offensive. A South Korean envoy met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, after which the South Korean president’s office declared that “the North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearise”. The double strategy of maximum military pressure and diplomatic engagement bore fruit.
Can we expect a positive outcome? The stakes could not be higher for all the involved parties. No country can afford a summit without graspable results. A failure would firmly set the course towards a military solution.
There are strong positive incentives on both sides to find common ground. Generations of North Korean leaders have been longing for recognition from the international community. Kim wants direct talks with the US. Trump needs to improve his ravaged image as his country’s top diplomat. The US could offer a peace accord and substantial security assurances in exchange for a verifiable destruction of nuclear weapons. Finally, a toxic mix of overconfidence and vanity drives both leaders’ desire to prove their “superior” skills.
Of course, the record of negotiations with North Korea calls for caution. Historically, the North Korean regime used negotiations to buy time, ultimately pushing ahead with its nuclear programme. Kim’s sincerity in giving up a costly nuclear arsenal must be doubted. Trump’s lack of knowledge about Northeast Asian politics could render, according to his critics, any meeting a propaganda victory for a gulag state.
But let’s assume a scenario, against all odds, in which the talks end successfully. A summit would produce only winners when it comes to avoiding nuclear escalation. From a strategic viewpoint, however, the uneven distribution of impacts of a potential Trump-Kim road map could have other long-term effects. Indeed, the upcoming summit is likely to open a new page in the epic Sino-US rivalry for regional dominance.
Although China’s economic preponderance is going to increase, enabling the country to flex its military muscles and become a security provider of sorts, an agreement about nuclear disarmament would reanimate confidence in American leadership, especially from regional allies. Aside from a rise in global prestige, Trump would turn the tables on the diplomatic front, putting China on the defence.
Already, a controversial debate about “who lost North Korea” rattles Beijing’s strategists and foreign policy experts. China’s current approach is commonly evaluated as a dead end. Not only did the six-party talks, initiated by Beijing after 2003, fall short of producing results, the relationship with North Korea turned sour. North Korea’s state media published diatribes against “imperialist” China, just as Beijing’s all-powerful censorship machine has allowed online mockery of the North Korean leader. Since becoming leader in 2011, Kim has never visited neighbouring China. Mutual trust between Beijing and Pyongyang reached its lowest point when China gave in to US demands to enforce new sanctions rigidly.
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So, when Chinese experts say that the summit sidelines their country, it needs to be viewed in the light of China’s own North Korea conundrum. A format that excludes Beijing mirrors the deterioration of bilateral relations that was in the making long before Trump was elected president. China has gradually lost influence over its client state. Even nuclear tests, some of which led to earthquake-like disruptions in big cities in the Dongbei area, seemed timed to humiliate the Chinese leadership. The Chinese strategic community is rightfully concerned. That anything consequential concerning the Korean peninsula could be negotiated without China’s participation is detrimental to China’s plan to replace the US in East Asia.
The ramifications go further. The Korean peninsula is today’s last remaining cold war hot spot. Any solution will determine the balance of power among China, the US and Japan. China can only wait and watch for decisions on crucial questions such as the US nuclear posture in East Asia and conventional military presence on the Korean peninsula or the future foreign policy orientation of both Koreas. A denuclearised North Korea or, perhaps, a reunified Korean entity might well tilt towards the US.
Trump’s surprising move, then, does not merely exploit policy mistakes. It indicates the structural weakness of China’s power. In the game of balancing China’s rise, the tensions closest to home still matter most. This lesson was lost in the midst of the ambitious push for the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Chinese strategists, following President Xi Jinping’s vision, are concentrating on Eurasia, Africa and even Latin America at the expense of problems in China’s immediate neighbourhood. Beijing’s miscalculation is to neglect spending more effort on resolving the nuclear crisis in time and in terms of its own national interests. After Trump seized the opportunity for direct talks with Kim, the Chinese leadership cannot but hope for a successful outcome, knowing it will be its biggest strategic loser.
A successful summit would signal a resurgent US. Resolving the Korean problem in US terms offers the Trump administration further room to manoeuvre in the South China Sea and with respect to Taiwan. The US position is strengthened by the Quadrilateral coalition, an Indo-Pacific security framework established in November 2017 by India, the US, Japan and Australia. Even Europe is indirectly part of the Quadrilateral as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to mutually open their ports in the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa to enable reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies and services for navy vessels. Thus, in contrast to Chinese voices who dream of constructing a regional order without the US, Washington will have a prominent hand in restructuring the future order of East Asian relations.
Maximilian Mayer is a research professor in the German Studies Centre at Tongji University, Shanghai