China and the US are both partners and rivals in the Korea peace negotiations

Cary Huang says that Beijing and Washington are united in their desire to prevent war and create stability on the Korean peninsula, but their objectives in talks may otherwise be at odds  

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 7:51pm

In diplomacy, things can change quickly if the changes serve every stakeholder’s interests. 

It is no wonder long-time enemies can look like old friends overnight, as the world watched North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s just-concluded encounter with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and will watch his upcoming one with US President Donald Trump, in a host of diplomatic offensives that might parallel Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to China in 1972. 

The dramatic development reveals that every stakeholder has realised that no one can afford for the threat of nuclear war to become real, and that peace serve everyone’s interests. 

Last week’s summit of the Korean leaders was an effort to avoid the worst threat to world peace in decades, and it was the first time a North Korean leader had stepped foot on South Korean soil. The upcoming summit will be the first time a sitting US president has met with the autocratic leader of the long-time communist adversary north of the demilitarised zone. 

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The diplomatic whirlwinds come after Kim’s aggressive nuclear and missiles programme advances and his threats of war –either a conventional or nuclear one – with Trump last year, bringing the peninsula to the brink of another war.  

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping can boast of the success of their work together to make such an occurrence possible, despite their own recent tensions over trade and other issues. 

At its heart, the Korea issue is about the denuclearisation of the peninsula and a peace treaty to end the decades-long state of hostility. In a signed communique, South and North Korea said they had agreed to achieve both by working together for “complete denuclearisation” and to seek an agreement to establish a “permanent” peace on the peninsula. 

But the Kim-Moon encounter might be more symbolic than substantive, as it might pave the way for the more crucial Trump-Kim summit, which will be more decisive for peace prospects. And China’s role and its approval will also be significant if real peace is to be realised. 

China will intently watch the Trump-Kim summit with the hopes that crucial steps will be taken towards peace on the peninsula, which serve China’s best interests. But Beijing is also seriously concerned over the details of the deals, as well as the role it can play as the talks move forward. 

Though it has long played a significant mediator’s role, Beijing has of late had to take a back seat and watch from the outside the development of this key security issue for the region. 

China, US and South Korea must harmonise their North Korea strategies, or risk being outplayed by Kim Jong-un 

To keep itself more directly involved in the process, Beijing is pressing for the Trump-Kim summit to take place in China, which might be a rational choice, given not only the convenience of the location for Kim, whose special plane is too shabby to travel long distances, but also given China’s historic role as mediator. 

However, few analysts think that is likely to happen. 

China fought with North Korea against the US-led United Nations’ forces during the Korean war. Beijing has also made tremendous investments in maintaining the Kim family dynasty’s survival since then. Beijing was also one of the signatories to the armistice agreement that ended broader hostilities between the two Koreas. 

But it is apparent that Washington, and Pyongyang perhaps, does not want too much Chinese input, as both the US and China have their own needs and agendas, which not only differ, but are perhaps mutually exclusive. 

So, the prospects of peace on the peninsula will also be a real test of the US-China rivalry.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post