CHINA HAS LONG held that talks are the only way to de-escalate tensions between North Korea and the United States. It now has talks — or at least the promise of them — following US President Donald Trump’s surprise acceptance of an offer to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by May for a face-to-face discussion on denuclearization.
The White House confirmed the talks, as it does, by Twitter.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
The downside of this development for Beijing is that it will not be at the table (unless by some chance it manages to host the talks), at least initially.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang made the right supportive noises about ‘dialogue and discussion’ in response to the announcement in Washington by the South Korean officials who had recently met Kim in Pyongyang. However, it did not escape this Bystander’s notice that he also slipped in a call to start multilateral meetings to advance the process of peacefully resolving the Korean nuclear issue, and that China would continue to make efforts on this.
Beijing will, of course, welcome the sudden prospect of diplomacy after months of belligerent invective between ‘the Dotard’ and ‘Little Rocket Man’. It will also be conscious that that diplomacy may be short-lived; it is difficult to be certain of Kim’s motives, and the history of arms control negotiations involving Pyongyang argues for caution about possible outcomes.
The previous attempt to get Pyongyang to disarm by negotiation was the Six-Party Talks involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and Japan that followed North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test in 2006. The deal on the table was that Pyongyang would shut down its nuclear and programme in exchange for aid and sanctions lifting. However, what could not be agreed was how to verify the North’s compliance. The talks broke down in 2008. Pyongyang resumed nuclear testing the following year, and Beijing signed on for the first time to sanctions against North Korea.
This time around, Beijing perhaps as much as Washington will be wary that Kim is again just buying time. And its red line remains no North Korean regime collapse that ends up with US or US-allied forces on its border.
The risks in bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States, should they turn out well (at this point a long shot, to our mind), is that North and South collectively end up more aligned with the United States and less with China, providing Washington leverage to use North Korea as a strategic balancing power in the region, a role that would give Kim some of the aggrandisement he craves.
The Global Times, a voicepiece on international affairs for the Party, noted that “as a major power, it is unnecessary for China to worry about North Korea ‘turning to the US’” — a comment that suggests Beijing is worried about just that.
Talks driven by Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington sideline Beijing, not a comfortable position for ‘a major power’.
Perhaps the best analogy for the latest developments is a chess match. Kim has just made an audacious move, which he will have thought through carefully. Trump has responded instinctively. We do not yet know if one or both men have played the breakthrough winning move or have blundered badly.
If Trump comes to feel he has been deceived or belittled, he will likely retaliate punitively. And that may be the worst outcome from Beijing’s perspective of a match at which, for now at least, it is on the sidelines.
For one, it would test Beijing’s commitment to implementing its 1961 Friendship treaty with the North that obliges it to intervene on Pyongyang’s side in the event of military ‘aggression’.
While we have been here before with the Six-Party Talks, what may different this time is that the North now has nuclear weapons that can reach the mainland United States. Historically, after they have acquired a nuclear arsenal, ‘rogue’ nuclear states, move onto legitimising their nuclear status and then finally to casting off the sanctions they incurred along the way.
If Kim is preparing to take the second step and Trump thinks he is stopping Kim from taking the first, where does that leave Beijing?
Arguably it still maintains the most leverage of any of the involved parties over its neighbour. But how can it use that to broker a compromise that provides the regional stability that it most desires within a multilateral framework to deliver it in which it can play a leading role when it is not in the room?
In that regard, much may turn on the personal relationship between Trump and President Xi Jinping, who again talked on the phone on Friday with Xi nudging Trump to develop bilateral talks with Kim into multilateral ones.
As we have noted before, Beijing has two sets of relationships to manage, one with Pyongyang and the other with Washington. Both have highly unpredictable players on the other side — and now both those wild cards are going to sit down together.