THIS BYSTANDER WAS was reminded this week that it was then South Korean president Park Geun-hye who was invited to the grand military parade in Tiananmen Square in 2015, not neighbouring North Korea’s still newish leader Kim Jong-un. Beijing considered North Korea an anachronistic problem state, and except for the oldest generations of Party cadres, held it in disdain.
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang remained cold to the point that by last November, China was enforcing international sanctions against North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme with a severity never before applied. As China accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade, that hurt.
US President Donald Trump’s bellicosity towards Kim (and vice versa) then gave cause for China to patch up its relations with North Korea. The prospect of a US military strike against North Korea threatened not one but two of China’s red lines — no regime collapse in North Korea that would send millions of refugees flooding into northern China and no US or US-aligned troops up against its borders.
When in May, Trump boldly accepted an invitation from Kim for direct talks, temporarily sidelining China from what had long been six-party discussions over the peninsula’s future, Beijing swung into action, seeing the gains in influence it had made in the region, in part as a result of the Trump administration’s broader regional disengagement, being at risk.
Kim left his country for the first time, taking his armoured train to Beijing, where President Xi Jinping accorded him full pomp and ceremony. As the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore on June 12 approaches, Kim has been back to Beijing. There were close discussions before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang in April and again earlier this month and North Korean delegations are in Beijing in number.
China is clearly signalling that Kim will not go into the meeting with Trump alone; he still has a powerful friend in China.
Beijing will also undoubtedly have been coaching Kim on dealing with Trump in person. Beijing is finally getting a handle on the mano-a-mano dynamics of US foreign policy under the Trump administration (learning now starting to be seen to good effect in the US-China trade dispute, too).
Beijing will also be doing what it can to ensure that any deal Trump and Kim strike is acceptable to it. It will not necessarily want to position itself as the guarantor of an agreement ensuring the security of the Kim regime in return for whatever ‘denuclearisation’ Kim and Trump agree on, but it will want any deal internationally embedded. Ideally, it would like a six-party treaty signed off at an international level and enshrined at the UN.
It is unlikely to get all that but will be satisfied by a deal that gets the Korean question sorted out, or at least contained for a generation in so far as that means stability on the peninsula. A cardinal principle of its foreign policy is not to have more than one troubled front on its borders at any time.
To that end, it has also been warming relations with Japan, primarily, and India.
Full denuclearisation is less of a priority for China than it is for the United States. The crunch question is not about dismantling the North’s nuclear weapon building capacity but whether or not there will be some capacity for North Korea to retain what is already has.
The Trump administration will try to get Kim to agree to remove as many nuclear weapons as possible as quickly as possible. However, Kim will push actively to keep some warheads.
The deal will thus likely be a thin one, with North Korea keeping some of its nuclear capacity for some time but not expanding it, and accepting international inspections for verification of compliance.
The other factor in play is sanctions, which Kim will want lifting (or at the very least for China to stop enforcing). He will, though, have to make concessions on exporting cyber terror and weapons technology.
Kim is now politically secure at home and can turn to prioritising economic development, though he has not entirely quashed domestic opposition to this.
Beijing has a strategic interest in his primary partner being China, not South Korea. Stability, not reunification (South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s objective) is what Beijing wants to see on the Korean peninsula.
There is plenty of risk to all sides in the Trump-Kim summit. Trump is unpredictable, and Kim is an unknown quantity in such a setting. However, both men have invested a lot in getting a deal — any deal. Beijing is now doing what it can to make sure it is not a bad deal but also one that would enable North Korea to be integrated into Chinese-led regional structures more efficiently.
A failure of the talks would be the least welcome outcome. In that event, Trump would most likely resume his bellicosity and resort to US military action. China and North Korea have a mutual defence pact that runs until 2021, so theoretically Beijing would have to come to Pyongyang’s aid if Washington attacked. It is highly unlikely in practice that it would.
However, it could also play into Beijing’s hands if a breakdown in talks further damaged US credibility in Asia, opening more space for Beijing’s plans for security and economic partnerships in the region. There is opportunity as well as risk for Beijing in the outcome of the Singapore summit.