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North Korea nuclear crisis

Is China happy about the US-North Korea summit? It has no reason not to be

Lu Canfeng says China is glad that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are ready to talk and, far from being sidelined, it can play a vital role in the difficult peace process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 9:40pm

Recently, the fear of China being bypassed in talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been palpable among some Chinese. They doubt that China, traditionally a key player, is happy about the recent “breakthrough”, and ask whether Beijing can still play a role without being sidelined.

The answer is yes. First, China is pleased to see the US and North Korea ready to talk, since China has repeatedly called for such direct dialogue. Second, China wants a denuclearised and stable Korean peninsula, which is the prerequisite of the Trump-Kim talks. 

In this sense, China is happy with the “positive signal”, regardless of the channel or dialogue through which it was achieved. In a phone call with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he hoped that the US and North Korea would “start contact and dialogue as soon as possible and strive for positive results”.

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Why the Trump-Kim meeting hinges on China

It is still too early to tell what might be achieved through the talks. What can be predicted is that the talks will not be easy, given the time-honoured mistrust and antagonism between the two countries. 

If the bilateral dialogue turns out to be a failure, the only hope is that a multilateral mechanism, such as the six-party talks, hosted by Beijing since 2003, can be resumed

Can China play a role in fostering new talks? Again, yes. China has repeatedly stressed that the core of the Korean peninsula issue is the hostility between North Korea and the US. While it is gratifying to see the two sides take this step forward, there is uncertainty over whether the summit will go ahead. If the bilateral dialogue turns out to be a failure, the only hope is that a multilateral mechanism, such as the six-party talks hosted by Beijing since 2003, can be resumed.

Trump boasted that Kim’s willingness to talk resulted from the US’ extreme sanctions on North Korea, leading to Pyongyang offering to suspend nuclear tests and missile launches before the talks. However, due to the conflicting national interests and deep distrust between the US and North Korea, the talks may not yield results. This could lead to the US placing even more stringent sanctions or other extreme measures on North Korea. A military conflict in North Korea would see refugees flooding into northeastern China. Worse still is the possibility of a nuclear war that engulfs the peninsula and spills over into neighbouring countries.

Clearly, China’s wish for the Trump-Kim talks is that they go ahead and achieve positive results. This is consistent with China’s dual suspension approach, whereby North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the US and South Korea suspending their large-scale military drills. This was realised during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the inter-Korean dialogue this month. Although the US did not openly welcome China’s approach, this is the scenario that has finally emerged, showing that China’s efforts have paid off.

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However, some in Beijing worry that North Korea might strike a deal with the US and use their newfound closeness to convince the US to recognise its “nuclear reality”. In fact, China and North Korea have maintained normal communication throughout, it being in North Korea’s interest to maintain good relations with China given the countries’ geographic proximity, shared ideological leanings and economic cooperation. As North Korea’s biggest investor, aid donor and trade partner, Beijing’s attitude towards Pyongyang is critical. Meanwhile, it is also in China’s interests to prevent extreme blockading of North Korea that could lead to military conflicts.

Therefore, China will continue to implement the UN Security Council’s resolutions while addressing North Korea’s legitimate concerns in the denuclearisation process. If the Kim-Trump summit really contributes to denuclearisation and the peace and stability that China values most, then why should China be unhappy about it?

Lu Canfeng is a military commentator