US-North Korea-China

A complex love triangle


March 12, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

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Why China is keen to facilitate peace in the Korean peninsula.  

Almost eight months after the historic meeting between the United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there seems to be momentum towards a second meeting. Kim has just completed another meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he had done before his date with Trump in June last year.

This is definitely a welcome move, not just for maintaining the continuity in the thawing of ties between North Korea and the US, but indeed it could have a significant lowering down of tensions between the US and China.

There has not been any significant progress in the US-Korea ties since the much-awaited meet in Singapore, even though both the leaders had expressed extreme happiness with the meeting and the outcomes and also signed an agreement to move towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The agreement, even if very vaguely worded, open to different interpretations and without any time frame, was indeed significant as it was the first time that US and North Korea had agreed on the need to denuclearize the hotbed of tensions.

The progress subsequently slowed down and not really surprising, keeping in mind Trump’s short attention span as he moved on to ‘win’ other key battles to make ‘America Great Again’. North Korea believes that even though it has taken key steps, keeping its part of the deal, by very publicly dismantling a nuclear testing site as well as another site for manufacturing missile engines.

North Korea has also refrained from conducting any more nuclear tests or missile launches and instead has focused on continuing to build trust with South Korea and two leaders are now regularly in touch and whose meetings are no-longer the headline grabbers that they were even a year ago.

While Pyongyang has at least partially delivered on its commitments, the US has not taken any steps and this is what Kim Jong-un wants to see progress on. The US should have initiated moves to remove sanctions on North Korea, even if the impact of the initial easing of sanctions would have been more symbolic than real on the North Korean economy.

Even though China has been involved in an extremely bruising trade war with the US and the ties between the two superpowers definitely stand near recent lows, yet Beijing seems to have taken a positive approach towards diffusing tensions in the Korean peninsula and continue to facilitate talks between Pyongyang and Washington DC.

China’s peace policy

There had been expectations that China would hit back at the US by going slow on the peace process in the region or by egging Kim Jong-un to take a harsher stance towards Trump. Partially, because Jinping is as keen as Trump to come across as a strong leader, indeed the strongest in the world, and the one who can make any other nation bow down and follow its commands. Neither of the two leaders can really afford a loss of face and that is one of the reasons behind the current tensions in their ties.

Surprisingly, however, not only did the Chinese President not withdraw his support for an American rapprochement with North Korea, but indeed he has maintained his policy of playing a proactive role in building the peace.

This is perhaps because Jinping expects that the world and especially the US President would see China’s positive role as a peace offering to Trump. The Chinese seem to believe that if they proactively participate in delivering a concrete and ‘historic’ breakthrough in the Korean puzzle, it would give Trump a concrete achievement that he can boast about and present as his success.

By letting Trump claim the credit and the accompanying headlines, Beijing hopes that Trump would return the gesture and ease down the trade tariffs and end measures that are beginning to bite the Chinese economy significantly.

Another factor in Beijing’s calculations can be that 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s rule in the country and Jinping has lined up an amazing array of events all through the year to showcase China’s place as a global power in military, business and cultural terms. The events include a gathering of global leaders, the world’s largest flower expo, to last over six months, as well as numerous cultural shows.

Jinping would want the global attention to be focused on China’s (and hence his) achievements and would not want any incidents in the neighbourhood to distract him. The North Korean economy cannot sustain for too long the pressures brought by the UN sanctions. China has always been wary of the scenario where waves of North Korean refugees start crossing over to escape starvation and economic crisis. That remains a possibility as long as the sanctions stay. Also, if Kim Jong-un sees little gains from making peace with the US, he is likely to go back to his harsher stance, pushing the entire North East Asian region to the brink once again. This is indeed not the way that Jinping would like to mark the landmark year during his reign.

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