Mixed reactions followed the recently concluded summit between United States (US) President, Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un. While the jury may still be out on whether the joint statement signed by the two leaders would be properly implemented, analysts are already pointing towards how the biggest winner of the meeting may very well have been China.
China has long been calling for the cooling of tensions on the Korean Peninsula for reasons that benefit its own strategic ambitions. A stable North Korean regime would act as a buffer between them and South Korea which still maintains US troops and a marine presence.
In line with this, Beijing had put forth the “freeze-for-freeze” initiative as well as the “dual track” approach towards resolving tensions on the peninsula. The former refers to the US reducing its military presence as North Korea winds down its nuclear ambitions and the latter is a where denuclearisation talks take place whilst Washington and Pyongyang normalise relations with each other.
Now it seems that China has what it wanted all along. As was remarked by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang during his regular press briefing on Tuesday, the “freeze-for-freeze” initiative has materialised and the situation is now moving in the direction of the “dual-track” approach.
The security guarantee that Trump promised as part of the “denuclearisation” process may likely take shape in the suspension of military exercises and war games which he said were “provocative”– echoing the rhetoric used by Beijing and Pyongyang in reference to such actions. This is essentially the “freeze-for-freeze” strategy that China had been pushing which would lead to a reduced US military presence in the region. Subsequently, it would change the balance of power in East Asia, as Beijing continues to engage in a rapid military build-up.
In terms of the US and North Korea normalising relations, peace and development have their own benefits for Beijing from a security and economic standpoint. Firstly, Beijing does not need nuclear weapons in its close proximity and if US-North Korea relations are fixed, this will likely be the case. Secondly, Beijing would be able to move away from coddling North Korea which has been a burden as well as an obstacle to Beijing having better relations with Seoul.
“In any reconciled Korean peninsula scenario, China will continue to have a huge economic influence – even though its relative influence in the North will be reduced,” said Sourabh Gupta, Senior Fellow at the Washington based Institute for China-America Studies.
“The view that China will somehow get marginalized in the course of US-North Korea and US-North Korea-South Korea interactions is not realistic,” he added.
Besides that, in the best possible scenario where Pyongyang opens up, China is likely to be a primary benefactor from investing in the North. Already, Chinese products are the top imports for the hermit kingdom, at US$2.84 billion per year and Chinese trade represents 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume.
However, all these scenarios hinge on the prospect of denuclearisation which mean different things to both, Pyongyang and Washington.
“There is a lot on the table here and a lot can go wrong. It remains to be seen if both parties are willing to make the difficult compromises needed,” Gupta said. “And without such a grand bargain or compromise, the process will fail.”
The statement signed by Trump and Kim made mention of a “complete denuclearisation” without shedding much light on the specifics of such an endeavour. Washington has long pushed for a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) whereas Pyongyang wants the same principle applied to the US which would mean the removal of the nuclear umbrella placed over South Korea and Japan.
When Trump was pressed on the vaguely worded commitment, he pointed to his acumen as a deal maker.
The next phase of talks would see Trump possibly set foot on North Korean soil as he just accepted an invitation by Kim to visit the country he once threatened to rain “fire and fury” on. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also scheduled to visit China on 14 June to discuss the summit. In the meantime, follow up US-North Korea talks are slated to take place next week.