Trump-Kim summit scorecard: China racked up gains, but so did all the other players on the Korean peninsula
Cary Huang says there can be no losers if peace is realised on the Korean peninsula because the diplomatic game requires that participants’ gains outweigh their losses
Diplomacy is about the trade-off between give and take. Any country must secure more gains than losses to agree a diplomatic deal.
That is why all players on the Korean peninsula – South Korea, North Korea, China and the United States – were effusive about the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12, hailing it with the epithet “historic”, as it served every stakeholder’s interest.
Most commentators agreed that the summit itself would be a success as long as it happened, given the real fears of conflict in the region just a few months ago when US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchanged threats of a nuclear war. The dreamlike face-to-face encounter between the two leaders spoke volumes for global diplomacy, although some criticised the episode as being heavy on pomp but light on substance.
Most importantly, the summit opens up an avenue for future talks on normalising US-North Korea relations, denuclearisation of the peninsula and cementing a formal peace treaty, the ultimate accomplishments for realising peace.
Trump and Kim got most of the propaganda bonanza. Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in were also praised for having made a significant contribution in enabling the summit. These leaders received a boost in public image and political legitimacy, despite each having their own hugely different political contexts.
Watch: Trump’s ‘art of the deal’ on North Korea
For North Korea, the summit itself confirmed the success of the Kim family’s longstanding nuclear policy. The summit, in effect, handed the reclusive leader considerable prestige and gave the crippling regime the major boost in international recognition that three generations of the ruling family have sought.
North Korea’s ultimate goal is to secure the survival of the regime and the continuation of the Kim family’s rule. The summit helped achieve this, as Kim might win sorely needed security guarantees and economic benefits if future talks go smoothly.
For Trump, presiding over the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and the disarmament of one of the most dangerous and combative states on the globe, would position him as one of the greatest US presidents in the history of diplomacy. Many compared the Trump-Kim summit with Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking trip to China in 1971.
However, the deal might unravel US alliances with Japan and South Korea as the detente could lead to the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, reducing America’s presence and influence in this critical region. Trump might also lose some credit; he was criticised for appeasing a ruthless dictator who presides over the world’s most repressive regime, with a terrible record of human rights abuses.
China appears to be the biggest winner as its two main proposals for dealing with the North Korea issue were essentially adopted by the summit.
In the short term, Beijing proposed a “freeze-on-freeze”, or “suspension-for-suspension”, which calls for a halt of both US-South Korea joint military exercises and North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. In the long term, China’s goal is the signing of a peace treaty and the removal of US troops from the peninsula.
While China opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it also wants to prevent a collapse of Kim’s regime or war on its borders. Beijing might have achieved both. Trump agreed to halt what he called “very expensive” and “very provocative” US-South Korea military exercises. He also expressed the desire to remove US troops from South Korea.
However, China will also have to give up something. While its role has been highlighted by Trump, Beijing might fear that it would be sidelined in future talks as a result of Washington’s outreach to Pyongyang. Beijing might also lose valuable diplomatic leverage as a result of the improving ties between Pyongyang and Washington and Seoul. China has long used North Korea as a pawn in its dealings with the US.
Watch: Behind the unique signatures of Trump and Kim
Commentators like to characterise developments as wins and losses. But there is no simple winner or loser in any diplomatic game as a deal can be reached only when participants see their gains outnumbering what they concede. If peace is realised on the Korea peninsula, a long-time geopolitical hot spot, every stakeholder involved in this unfolding diplomatic drama will be a winner as their gains will certainly outweigh what they have given up.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post