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Fu Ying, China’s former UK ambassador, vice foreign minister and member of China’s delegation to the Six Party Talks on North Korea, offered words of encouragement ahead of the Singapore Summit in the Washington Post on 10 June: ‘For the Chinese people, a peaceful Korean Peninsula is our fundamental aspiration. We would like to see the people of North Korea able to embark on a path of economic development. We sincerely hope that the parties rise to the challenge of this historic moment’.
As a statement of China’s hopes from the Singapore Summit, fair enough: no one wants tension, much less war, on their doorstep; and guess which country is best placed to benefit most from North Korean economic development? There is no doubt that the document signed by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un yesterday matches up rather well against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) other long-term interests on the Korean Peninsula.
What are those Chinese interests?
- To avoid regime instability or collapse in North Korea, which would lead to refugees flooding into northeast China. Refugees would bring instability to a region already suffering economically, something that the CCP sees as a serious threat to its authority.
- To prevent a re-unification of the peninsula that sees North Korea absorbed by South Korea. This would bring US troops to China’s own border. Even if after re-unification the US withdrew its troops, the CCP would still be suspicious of sharing a border with a pro-western country.
- To ensure China’s regional dominance in north east Asia and to remove the strategic influence of the US.
- To avoid serious US sanctions as a result of trading with North Korea.
- To see North Korea become a modernising, predictable, functioning, amenable, even pliable, country, or in other words, a smaller version of authoritarian China. One result would be an increase in trade, to the benefit of China’s economically depressed north east provinces.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, a reduction in US–North Korean tensions enhances focus on the vital tasks of reform: tackling an economic slow-down; dealing with trade disputes with the US, protecting the environment; and other challenges to his so-called New Era.
While it is still too early to know if the document signed in Singapore will be deemed ‘historic’; its four, albeit vague, main provisions are at least a start. Not so long ago, Beijing feared that in order to stop Kim’s nuclear programme, the US might deepen still economic sanctions, affecting any Chinese company or bank involved in trade with North Korea by removing their ability to do business in US dollars, in effect severely restrict their business globally. That fear has receded for now.
Current UN sanctions have not been lifted, but a glimmer of hope has emerged that the Singapore meeting could lead to a concrete agreement that could allow for this. That in turn would go some way to advancing the Chinese interests listed above.
But what about US influence and troops on the peninsula? On the face of it, China has lost out. It did not attend the Trump–Kim meeting, and some think that it might even fear a rapprochement between two countries, neither of which are true friends of China. Although North Korea may be the only country with whom China has sealed their alliance with a formal treaty, and the two may describe their relationship as being as close as ‘lips and teeth’, as the phrase goes in Chinese, there is still bad blood between them. The missile tests of the last few years – a number of them timed, insultingly, to coincide with dates important to Xi Jinping and the CCP – are more representative of the true feelings between the two states.
But China can afford to be patient, and geography is on its side: a contiguous border, big markets and large investment funds guarantee influence. The same ingredients seem to be working elsewhere in Asia, not least as countries turn from the US, which is seen as bent on tearing up the global order it founded. Meanwhile, talk of re-unification of the Korean Peninsula, even if it were to lead to US troops stationed on China’s borders, is so far in the future as not to be a concern. It is hard to conceive that Kim Jong-un would ever be interested in becoming the junior in a partnership with the South, or that the South Koreans or Americans would allow him any other role. The parallel case of German re-unification suggests that this would require the collapse of the neighbouring superpower, and China does not look like it will be going the way of the USSR any time soon.
So, one might suspect that Xi Jinping is a happier man today than he was a few months ago. There is, of course, a long, long way to go. Kim is touchy, and Trump is mercurial. But at least it seems as though the latter treats his allies worse than this enemies, and with his eye on mid-term elections and, if all goes well, possibly a Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps the US president will behave with less flitting barbarity and a little more wisdom. If nothing else, it will give Xi some breathing space to concentrate on the difficult economic and environmental challenges facing the CCP.
BANNER IMAGE: North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un meets with US President Donald Trump in Singapore, 12 June 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.