The Trump-Kim Summit was not just about the USA and North Korea. China was in the thick of things.
When the recent thaw in relations between North and South Korea was first announced, China was not in the picture. In fact, some countries in the region had been uneasy about the pace with which the new found detente was progressing. However, after the conclusion of the summit, it is quite evident that one of the clear winners has been China. Despite its absence in Singapore, China has now positioned itself as one of the key stakeholders in the talks, and reaffirmed the need for countries in the region to engage with it more as these talks progress.
China has long coveted a leadership position in the emerging global order. In the post-Cold War world, the United States emerged as the unmatched superpower, able to project power far from its shores. In such an order, China found it prudent to avoid matching the US gun for gun and bomb for bomb. Instead it assiduously clung to Deng Xiaoping’s famous axiom, “Hide your Strength and Bide your Time.” All this changed in 2012, when Xi Jinping took over the reins of the Communist Party of China. With his own idiosyncratic foreign and military policy, he marked a clear departure from Deng’s axiom shifting the plane of geostrategic competition from military hard power to economic, cultural and diplomatic soft power. While Xi hasn’t completely ignored the military, using it to address regional territorial conflicts, Xi has leveraged China’s economic strength to expand China’s reach across the world.
Ever since Donald Trump had descended down an escalator and ascended to the Presidency, he has talked of walking away from “bad deals” such as its military alliances, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate accords. In the space left by a receding and inward looking United States, Xi has looked to capaitalise and moved China in to claim its leadership role. For example, the TPP looked to augment the existing military relationship of US and its East Asian allies by adding a layer of economic cooperation between the countries. Once Trump pulled out of the TPP, China entered the fore with the RCEP agreement. Xi has cautioned against protectionism, championed globalization and supported the fight against climate change. China has previously even offered to mediate talks in Kashmir, Sudan and the Israel Palestine conflict. However, the latter mediation offers haven’t gained the traction China looked to garner. By positioning itself as a key stakeholder in denuclearization talks, China can now add a diplomatic layer to its otherwise solely economic engagement in East Asia, and demonstrate an ability to lead peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula.
To this end, Beijing has already stepped up engagement with relevant countries in the region to regain the ground it lost when it was caught off guard on North Korea’s outreach to the South, and later to the US. After the thaw in the North and South’s relationship, Xi moved quickly to establish a firm line of communication with Kim Jong Un. Xi has met the young leader on two occasions in the past few months to supposedly guide him on negotiating with President Trump. Kim Jong Un’s right hand man Kim Yong Chol is also speculated to have made a stop at Beijing before his trip to the US to discuss the June 12, Singapore summit.
Xi has looked to reduce the US influence, and has even called for a multi-lateral approach to the talks as opposed to a simple bilateral arrangement. With regard to the other countries in the region, Xi has worked considerably to improve relations with Seoul over the past few years, and initiated a reset of relations with Tokyo through State Councilor Wang Yi’s visit to the country in April. The Japan reset was then augmented by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan to engage both Seoul and Tokyo in a Trilateral Summit in May to discuss among other issues the North Korean-US Summit. In fact the outcome of the summit has been along the lines of China’s long time dual freeze proposal for the North Korea issue: a North Korean commitment to suspend missile tests and a simultaneous US commitments to halt its military exercises with South Korea. Given that the only tangible outcome of the summit has benefitted China while the rest of commitments continue to remain vague doesn’t do the US’s image any favours.
It will be imperative that Donald Trump not only set aside his transactional nature of diplomacy but also look to step up engagement with its allies in the region. Trilateral discussions among the US, Japan and South Korea are required to identify key short-term and long-term priorities, and clearly represent them in future talks between North Korea and the US. The US must also ensure security guarantees of these allies lest it forgets that North Korea maintains the fourth largest conventional army in the world apart from its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the US must remain committed to take the dialogue forward and not balk at the simplest of rhetoric from Kim Jong Un. Given that nuclear weapons are involved, it is unlikely that there will be a major conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula. If Trump backs out of the dialogue, the US will no doubt be seen as an unreliable partner with no commitment to the region’s security or prosperity.
In his speech to the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi stated that he aimed to make China “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.” Xi has repeatedly made references to an unpredictable and evolving global order as well as the Asian Century, succinctly drawing attention to the US’s declining position as a global leader and China’s rising stature. No doubt, the summit’s outcome is symptomatic of China’s growing influence in the region. For the United States, engagement will be the key.