Kim Jong-un’s summit plans with the US and South Korea leave China out in the cold

Cary Huang says that for Kim Jong-un to meet the leaders of South Korea and the United States, when he has yet to meet Xi Jinping, shows how bad relations with China have become

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 7:22pm

It would be a win for all participating parties – the US, ChinaRussiaJapan as well as South and North Korea – if US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s planned summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un lead to detente on the troublesome peninsula following the year-long threat of war, be it conventional or nuclear.

A peaceful solution to the decades-long dispute over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition might serve the interests of all countries directly involved in the previous decade’s aborted six-party talks.

That is why the Trump-Kim diplomatic episode has been compared to the Nixon-Mao summit in 1972, a diplomatic event that not only brought about the historic rapprochement between two of the world’s major powers, but also helped secure global peace for a generation.

Indeed, all leaders, including Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, spoke highly of cooperation among all parties involved. In the past year, Trump has vacillated between praising and criticising Xi’s willingness to help with Pyongyang, revealing their cooperation and competition on the issue.

Among the major players, Beijing has occupied the role of mediator; it hosted the failed six-nation talks on the nuclear issue a decade ago. 

China has long played a critical role in ensuring the survival of North Korea’s regime and Kim’s family dynasty through the lifeline of economic aid. But, in recent years, Beijing has also played a significant role in implementing US-initiated United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang, despite still treating its fellow Marxist-Leninist neighbour as a political ally in its competition with the US. 

How China’s failure to watch its own backyard let the US gain the upper hand with North Korea

Any development on US-North Korea relations is bound to transform the geopolitical order not only on the peninsula but also in Northeast Asia

Beijing has lost its leverage as a mediator, given that the dual summits were arranged without Chinese participation. Beijing is also likely to be left out of all potential peace talks in the future as a result of the establishment of direct contact between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang. 

Beijing’s diplomatic embarrassment is that the Trump-Kim summit comes before any face-to-face meeting between Xi and Kim, which implies that Washington-Pyongyang relations now matter more than those between Beijing and Pyongyang. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed a willingness to explore a summit with Kim. 

Abe’s nuclear disaster: Why has Japan been shut out of North Korea talks?

China has long argued that denuclearisation can be achieved only through the suspension of US-South Korea joint military exercises along with North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations. But Kim has pledged that the regime will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests and said he accepted the upcoming US-South military drill next month. 

Why the Trump-Kim meeting hinges on China

Improving US-North Korean relations have come at the worst time for China, with Beijing-Pyongyang relations at their lowest ebb in decades as a result of Beijing’s support for UN sanctions. The young Kim has become increasingly defiant of Beijing, as he has timed several recent nuclear and missile tests to humiliate Chinese leaders, including close to the Trump-Xi summits. Kim apparently hopes to strike a deal with Washington to be rid of his overreliance on his communist big brother, counting on economic support from the more prosperous US and South Korea. If this occurs, it might resemble the evolution of China’s relations with Vietnam, as Hanoi – also once a closed communist ally fighting against the US – has now forged much closer ties with Washington than Beijing. 

Chinese diplomats might have good reason to determine whether, just as the Nixon-Mao meeting was all about counter-checking the Soviet Union, the Trump-Kim summit might also be an effort to contain an increasingly assertive China.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post