The Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un had been expected to deliver concrete results on the nuclear negotiations and/or US-North Korea bilateral relations. Widely speculated outcomes had included partial denuclearization by North Korea in exchange for partial easing of US economic sanctions on the country; a declaration of the end of the Korean War; and even an exchange of liaison offices between Washington and Pyongyang. The speculation was so vivid that many observers and analysts were startled when the summit ended abruptly without any concrete statement or agreement. China is no exception to that astonishment. Before the summit, Beijing was of the belief that an incomplete deal over the nuclear issue and some level of improvement of relations between the US and North Korea was in the offing. The level of improvement was expected to be limited, which would offer Beijing a sense of manageability of the path moving forward. However, when the Hanoi summit fell through, Beijing had to recalculate its implications and the best approach ahead.
The failure of the Hanoi summit was not necessarily bad news for China. It underscored the long-term nature of a solution to the North Korea issue vis-à-vis any abrupt change to the status quo, which offers China more venues and opportunities to exert control and influence over such a solution. In the Chinese view, the failure of the bilateral approach between the US and North Korea illustrates the indispensability of Beijing to a future solution, as a participant or even a guarantor to facilitate the birth of a deal given the deeply embedded distrust between the two. Beijing sees an opportunity both to enhance its leverage in the rising great power competition with the United States and to use North Korea as a catalyst for more cooperation with Washington. This tendency is particularly evident in President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to North Korea.
China’s detachment from the current US-DPRK negotiations
For Beijing, the current situation on the Korean Peninsula is nowhere near its worst-case scenario. For a very long time, China’s policy toward the peninsula has swung between anxieties over two extreme possibilities: a war anxiety where China is dragged into a second Korean war between the US and the DPRK and an exclusion anxiety where China is excluded from the solution of the North Korea issue and future arrangements on the peninsula. Over the past decade, most of China’s policy moves toward the North Korea issue could be situated somewhere between these two fundamental concerns. China promotes direct communications between the US and North Korea to address their security dilemma, which is seen as the root cause of the nuclear issue; but it also remains on edge when such direct communications bear any likelihood of rendering a concrete breakthrough without Beijing’s full involvement.
Both anxieties were brought to their maximum potential after the Trump administration began in 2017. The escalation of tensions with North Korea peaked at Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” in the middle of 2017, directly contributing to a Chinese assessment that some level of military conflict was imminent and to its corresponding planning for a North Korea contingency.1 When the tensions dramatically de-escalated after the North Korean charm offensive from the beginning of 2018 and the US and North Korea started direct communications before the Singapore summit, China’s concern transformed into anxiety over a scenario where China would be excluded from the dialogue. In the days leading up to the Singapore summit, speculation over a US-ROK-DPRK trilateral declaration of the end of the Korean War ran rampant in the Chinese policy community. Bold proposals were circulated of drastic measures China would/should adopt to counter the possibility of it being excluded from the future of the peninsula.
Developments around and after the Singapore summit attested to the unlikeliness of China’s exclusion. Since his first visit to China in March 2018, Kim Jong-un maintained close consultations and coordination with China over his engagement with the United States. He visited China personally before and after the Singapore summit in 2018 and before the Hanoi summit in 2019. Such consultations were reassuring for the Chinese in that North Korea had no intention to abandon China as its security guarantor, while the prospect of peace and reconciliation with the United States remained uncertain. This is contrary to the version that many Americans and South Koreans had received and believed from their North Korean interlocutors: China, rather than the United States, is the biggest security threat for North Korea. North Korean manipulation of other powers does not come as a surprise for any concerned party.
For China, North Korea has always been the anchor of China’s role in the future of the Korean Peninsula, rather than South Korea or the United States. As long as North Korea feels insecure and remains distrustful of the negotiations with Americans, China’s strategic utility will be high on North Korea’s priority list, and North Korea is unlikely to abandon China as a useful point of leverage. This does not suggest that the goals and desired endgames of China and North Korea completely overlap, but it does indicate that for the foreseeable future and until there is a major reliable and sustainable breakthrough between the US and the DPRK, the strategic interests of China and North Korea will align significantly and the two governments will maintain close communications and coordination over their future moves.
The active engagement with North Korea by the Trump administration has created an impression that China occupies the moral high ground. Now with the direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, China no longer sees itself as the sole party liable for the problem or to be held responsible if the dialogue were to fail since the US is taking charge. Beijing takes credit for ushering North Korea to the negotiating table through political pressure and economic sanctions and top Chinese diplomats, such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi, vigorously claim that North Korea is a positive example made possible by the great power cooperation between China and the US.2 Now reassured by the unlikelihood of a breakthrough coming from bilateral dialogue, as attested in Hanoi, China can maintain a relatively detached position from the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, taking credit for any potential success and assigning blame for any potential failure.
Bilateral versus multilateral solutions
The failure of the Hanoi summit to produce concrete breakthroughs in US-DPRK negotiations serves as a testament to China of the inability of the two countries to independently reach a bilateral solution to the stalemate. In the view of Chinese experts, both Washington and Pyongyang should bear the responsibility for the fallout in Hanoi. Although many Chinese are increasingly convinced that the Trump administration did not want a partial denuclearization deal from the very beginning, widespread expectations for such a deal still led to wild speculation on how Trump was steered away by his national security advisor at the last minute. To attribute the failure of the Hanoi summit to the unpredictability of the Trump administration is evidently a convenient explanation for Chinese government experts because it allows them to shift the blame for their own failure to make the correct assessment prior to the summit. However, for better-informed Chinese observers, North Korea was the one poorly prepared for the summit; Pyongyang appointed a new chief nuclear negotiator in late January one month before the summit to replace Madame Choe Son-hui.3 The former ambassador to Spain, Kim Hyok-chol, was allegedly not able to make decisions on North Korea’s negotiating position and instead relied on Kim Jong-un himself to decide at the summit.
The Hanoi summit was North Korea’s failure, not in the sense that Pyongyang was unable to convince the US to accept a partial deal, but in the sense that North Korea revealed its bottom line in the nuclear negotiations. As it turned out, Pyongyang’s priority is almost solely focused on the easing of economic sanctions, specifically, the partial easing of the UN sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, instead of security concerns such as ending the Korean War, security reassurances, the exchange of liaison offices, etc.4 For China, the disclosure of North Korea’s bottom-line negotiating position will give the United States even more leverage in future negotiations, making North Korea’s goals even less attenable now that Washington grasps North Korea’s most vulnerable issue.
The mistake of North Korea, however, is not to China’s detriment. The negotiating momentum might have been halted between the US and North Korea, but it is far from a return to the hostility of 2017. Indeed, after the Hanoi summit, although neither side has shown any appetite for critical compromise, both are keeping the door open for further negotiations. The inability of the US and the DPRK to reach a deal attests to the fundamental distrust between the two and the innate deficiency of a bilateral solution to the North Korea nuclear issue. For China, there is no trust or confidence on the US side that North Korea will pursue denuclearization even if the sanctions are lifted, while North Korea does not believe that the US will abandon its hostility even if North Korea denuclearizes. The trust deficiency makes it impossible for either side to accept an incomplete deal: for the US to completely abandon its hostile policy and for North Korea to completely denuclearize. What has made it even more challenging is that the two sides could have very different definitions as to what constitutes a complete deal.
This leads to an interesting aspect of China’s position on the North Korea nuclear negotiations. Although Beijing has supported direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang to address each other’s “reasonable concerns,” it neither believes in nor supports a bilateral solution to the nuclear issue.5 China does not wish to be excluded from the determination of the future arrangement on the Korean Peninsula. But the Hanoi fallout seems also to support the fact that North Korea and the US are not capable of reaching a bilateral solution either. In other words, Beijing wants the two sides to hold dialogue to discuss their concerns, but the final resolution should not happen without Beijing’s participation. The previous Chinese claim that the North Korea nuclear issue is a bilateral one between Washington and Pyongyang served to reduce the mounting pressure holding China responsible for North Korea’s provocative behavior as its primary patron. However, when such channels of communications begin, China does not subscribe to the claim that the future of the peninsula is a bilateral issue between the US and the DPRK.
Alignment between North Korea’s economic priority and China’s interests
China appears convinced that Kim Jong-un is genuinely changing the priority of his government from nuclear programs to economic development. Chinese experts divide North Korea’s national strategy into four periods. The first three are: the juche (self-reliance) period under Kim Il-sung,the songun (military first) period under Kim Jong-il, and the byungjin (parallel development of military and economic power) period during the first stage of Kim Jong-un’s reign. In April 2018, Kim Jong-un first announced that he would start moving away from the byungjin policy and adopt a new strategy focusing on improving the economy.6 The Chinese have received numerous signs of this new focus of the North Korean leader, including his policy statements at the 3rd plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, his interest in agricultural development and high-tech industrial development during his visits to China, and the dialogue since then in which North Korean officials have engaged with their Chinese counterparts on economic reform and social management.7
North Korea’s interest in economic development is more than good news for the Chinese government. As early as during the Kim Jong-il government, Beijing had spent extensive time and effort to convince the North Korean leader that nuclear development is not the only or best approach to address internal legitimacy and external security concerns. Chinese-style and/or Vietnamese-style economic reform under authoritarian one-party rule, in Beijing’s view, has proven not only viable but also preferable to the political and economic liberalization promoted by the West. China had previously been frustrated by North Korea’s unbending pursuit of nuclear weapons, which had hindered the prospect for foreign economic cooperation needed for its domestic development.
Kim Jong-un’s reorientation to prioritize economic development played into China’s long-term desire to engage the country economically. At various times, China had proposed special economic zones on the border—infrastructure development that included ports—to no avail. A primary reason for these failures had been the obstacle posed by North Korea’s nuclear development program. If US-DPRK bilateral negotiations could open the door to its economic reform and opening up, China would stand in the front row to support such a campaign. It would not only help to boost China’s economic influence over the peninsula but also mitigate (or even remove) a key source of instability and national security concern for China in Northeast Asia.
The feasibility of North Korea prioritizing economic development first and foremost depends on whether the international community, especially the United States, would allow for economic cooperation between North Korea and the rest of the world. Indeed, after the rounds of multilateral and unilateral sanctions piled on North Korea for its nuclear program, foreign investment in and trade with the country have been significantly curtailed. As North Korea’s largest trading partner, China’s trade dropped by 10.5 percent in 2017, with a major 50.6-percent drop in the month of December upon the passing of UN Security Council resolutions 2371 and 2375.8 During the year 2018, China’s trade with North Korea further fell 51.2 percent, with imports from North Korea suffering an even larger drop of 87.7 percent.9 Without partial easing of the sanctions, almost all plans to boost North Korea economic development through trade or investment will violate UN sanctions.
Misalignment between North Korea’s partial denuclearization and China’s interests
Since North Korea’s economic strategy largely depends on a negotiated result regarding the easing of sanctions, China was hoping to see a phased and synchronized package deal toward denuclearization. However, most Chinese experts on North Korea harbor deep skepticism over North Korea’s commitment to complete denuclearization, noting that there is no precedent of a country willingly abandoning its nuclear weapons program once it has become a nuclear state. North Korea has endured extreme international isolation and sanctions for its nuclear development, and its nuclear capability has become not only the guarantee for its national security but also the symbol of its national pride and superiority in the contest for legitimacy and leadership vis-à-vis South Korea.
In China’s assessment, North Korea is not yet offering convincing evidence or commitment that it aims at completely giving up its nuclear program. Among the four components involved in denuclearization—the nuclear weapons (warheads and missiles), the nuclear materials, the nuclear facilities, and the knowledge of the nuclear weapons program—North Korea appears willing to partially give up the first three components but makes no mention of how it plans to deal with nuclear knowledge, especially its nuclear scientists. Indeed, although Kim Jong-un announced a moratorium on all nuclear and missile tests, what it has essentially achieved is the freezing of further nuclear development. Cynical Chinese observers see this as North Korea’s attempt to wiggle out of the issue of denuclearization: as long as North Korea avoids any further provocations, its “good behavior” will somehow be rewarded by the easing of sanctions.
Despite China’s priority for peace and stability, denuclearization remains an uncompromised agenda point in its North Korea policy. A nuclear North Korea with a suspicious pattern of provocations and unpredictable future behavior will remain a key destabilizing factor for China’s border security and immediate periphery. A nuclear-armed North Korea could stimulate similar aspirations for nuclear weapons by neighboring Japan and South Korea. More importantly, if North Korea remains nuclear, it will give the United States justification to maintain and strengthen its military alliance and deployment on the Korean Peninsula. All these factors confirm to China the unacceptability of North Korea remaining a nuclear state.
Reflecting on US-DPRK nuclear negotiations, China’s adherence to eventual denuclearization translates into its potential rejection of a partial deal between denuclearization and the easing of sanctions as the endgame. Although China is concerned with the possibility of the US offering North Korea a watered-down deal in exchange for its strategic utility in countering China, the policy implication is that China regards itself as the judge of the validity of such a potential deal, ready to accuse the US of any leniency it may offer North Korea on denuclearization. This creates an innate tension between China’s desire for a negotiated deal and the difficulty for such a deal to include complete denuclearization of North Korea. It also creates tension between China’s role as North Korea’s primary patron and its national interest in nuclear nonproliferation.
China’s desired path forward
The failure of the Hanoi summit has cast an uncertain shadow over the future of US-DPRK nuclear negotiations but not at China’s expense. Using the Hanoi fallout to underscore the infeasibility of a bilateral solution, China again seeks a multilateral solution with it as a key guarantor of the future peace mechanism. For China, the distrust between the US and North Korea and the real possibility of both sides reneging on at least some of their commitments through technical issues make it essential to have a multilateral framework to ensure North Korea’s complete denuclearization and its subsequent security. Such a framework, in China’s view, would address the near- and long-term concerns of both parties but would not be subject to any unilateral change of position by either, thereby representing the most feasible solution to the North Korea nuclear issue.
Although the focus of the negotiations has been on North Korea’s nuclear program, the rising consensus among Chinese observers and analysts is that the framework to address the nuclear issue will have to be based on broader negotiations and agreements over the politics and security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula among North Korea, South Korea, the United States, and China. China’s persistent position for a solution lies in a “phased, synchronized package deal.” In its desired game plan, what this essentially means is that the United States and North Korea begin the process with bilateral talks on mitigating hostility and a potential plan for phased denuclearization synchronized with the easing of sanctions, which will lead to multilateral negotiations over the ending of the Korean War, future diplomatic normalization between the US and North Korea, the eradication of hostility, the re-accession of North Korea into the international community as a normal member, and the normalization of relations between North Korea and South Korea. In China’s view, all of these components comprise a long-term peace mechanism that will govern the future security of the Korean Peninsula.
China is determined to stay an indispensable participant in any such future arrangements on the Korean Peninsula. Given the inability of US-DPRK bilateral talks to resolve their security dilemma and the trust deficiency, China’s reaffirmed solidarity and improved relations with North Korea—in Beijing’s view—have translated into its guaranteed role in the future of the peninsula. Indeed, in no scenario does China see itself being excluded from a future resolution, ranging from ending the Korean War to reconciliation of the two Koreas, from a peace treaty between North Korea and the United States to international efforts to aid North Korea economically. The special relationship between China and North Korea and the latter’s dependence on Beijing for political support, economic aid, and most importantly, security guarantees, in Chinese eyes, equate to a special seat for China that cannot be replaced by any other country.
Within the Chinese policy community, the specific formula for such a multilateral framework remains an issue of debate, although all formulas include an essential role for both the US and China. The most extreme proposal is a G2 version of bilateral negotiations between Washington and Beijing to determine a mutually acceptable security arrangement for the peninsula, which would, in turn, be accepted by South Korea and North Korea. A more moderate and seemingly realistic proposal is based on a 2+2 formula for four-party negotiations for a permanent peace regime. Such a formula would include the two Koreas as the major parties and two negotiators (the US and China) as the two major powers and the mediators to shepherd the inter-Korea dialogue. A three-party proposal, on the other hand, calls for a US-China-DPRK negotiating framework, based on the fact that these are the three signatories of the 1953 Armistice.
Although China has developed a fairly definite position on the future of the negotiations, it does not see itself as the first mover. Great power competition on the peninsula is real, but being the first mover to propose or initiate a new process does not necessarily translate into a competitive advantage in this arena. China’s top priority on the peninsula has long been the preservation of status quo and prevention of any development that could jeopardize the factors that support China’s national interests. These include maintenance of the North Korea regime, prevention of escalation of tensions and armed conflict, and nuclear nonproliferation.
The prioritization of the status quo means that China is unlikely to be the first mover and actively seek solutions to change the current situation unless the solution guarantees better payoffs than China’s current strategy provides. However, no matter how China approaches the issue, better payoffs appear unlikely with inter-Korea reconciliation, future unification of the Korean Peninsula, and normalization of relations between the US and North Korea. This does not suggest that China opposes these trends since the alternative—heightened tension between North Korea and the US and South Korea—poses even more risk to China’s fundamental national interests. But it does suggest that when events head in these directions, China’s top priority is not going to be the promotion of positive momentum but rather the prevention and management of the negative consequences they would have for China’s interests. Many examples underlie this less-understood position of China. For example, China publicly supports the direct bilateral dialogue between the US and North Korea to address their mutual concerns, but the underlying, unspoken position is that China never agreed to a future arrangement on the Korean Peninsula solely based on US-DPRK negotiations. Similarly, China officially supports the unification of the Korean Peninsula as long it is achieved peacefully and independently, but Beijing never has committed itself to support a unification scenario that damages China’s interests.
The failure of the Hanoi summit alleviates China’s concern over a US-DPRK bilateral solution to the nuclear problem. As long as China sees the status quo as a reliable and certain path forward, any party that hopes to change the status quo will need China’s approval and support. To achieve that, China sees that such a party (or parties) will need to propose to China an alternative path that offers better payoffs than China’s current policy. That possibility is still primarily tied to US-China competition on the peninsula.
North Korea and current US-China relations
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, great power competition between China and the US has escalated to a new and dangerous stage, spilling over to almost all key issues related to bilateral relations, including trade, security, ideology, and international institutions. In this context, North Korea is one of the few issues over which the US and China have not yet directly clashed. While China portrays the progress on the North Korea nuclear issue as perhaps the best example of US-China cooperation under the Trump administration, the rising sense of competition and hostility will further complicate any consensus on this issue and on the future of the peninsula.
Xi Jinping’s June visit to North Korea raised questions about sensitive timing and China’s real intentions. The trip happened at the peak of the US-China trade war and one week before what is expected to be a showdown between Xi and Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka. The purpose is unclear. Despite a series of high-profile, yet symbolic, ceremonies, meetings and statements, as well as speculation about China leveraging DPRK in the trade war, clear policy changes remain obscure. Judging from where Beijing stands, China’s true intention lies beyond the immediate gains from leveraging North Korea in the trade negotiations. In fact, China is trying to showcase its own pivotal role in the North Korean nuclear negotiations, hoping it would serve as a stabilizer in the turbulent US-China relations.
Unsurprisingly, many initially assumed that Beijing is leveraging North Korea in its trade negotiations with Washington. The “linkage” between North Korea and trade first came from Trump in 2017. Although he launched the trade war a year later despite China’s cooperation on North Korea sanctions, the Chinese side nevertheless categorized US-China cooperation on this issue as a sterling example of the great cooperation between the two countries led by the senior leaders (高层引领大国合作). Despite the escalation of the trade war from the summer of 2018, Beijing has not tried to play the North Korea card in its trade negotiations with Washington. It cannot dictate North Korea’s behavior and push it to provoke when Pyongyang is seeking reconciliation. Open violation of UN sanctions resolutions by China would elicit further US retaliation in trade. Most importantly, at a time when Beijing’s top priority is resolution of the trade war, not letting the North Korea factor interfere is regarded as the best option.
Why then does China let the North Korea factor interfere now? The ability to use North Korea as leverage depends on its ability to induce good or bad behavior from the North. History shows that China is not able to prevent North Korea from destabilizing provocations, including six nuclear tests against China’s warnings. History also shows that China is not able to deliver North Korea to the negotiating table, primarily because the US was not interested in a dialogue where the denuclearization of North Korea is not completely and unequivocally addressed. History further shows that China is not able to induce provocative behavior from North Korea, mostly because Pyongyang has its independent calculations and China resents instability. Considering that Pyongyang is currently more interested in economic development and a negotiated outcome with the US, it is unclear what endgame China’s emboldening of North Korea would induce.
The deliverables from Xi’s trip were mostly symbolic. China vowed solidarity with the DPRK, committing itself to the support of Kim Jong-un and his new priority of economic development. However, specific commitments are scarce on economic cooperation despite speculation prior to the trip of agricultural assistance, development aid, and economic deals. The most repeated message might be the renewed emphasis on a political solution and process for issues on the peninsula, which in China’s foreign policy lexicon include not only denuclearization of the whole peninsula, but also political arrangements as a precondition. Through a vow to support North Korea’s “reasonable concerns,” China conveys a thinly-veiled potential security guarantee for North Korea.
Perhaps, the most important message from Xi’s visit is that China is claiming a pivotal role in the resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue moving forward and signaling the need for a multilateral mechanism instead of bilateral negotiations. The failure of the Hanoi summit serves as testament to China of the infeasibility of a US-DPRK bilateral solution. Its envisioned path forward is a return to a multilateral solution with China as a key guarantor of the future peace mechanism. For China, the distrust between the US and North Korea and the real possibility of both sides reneging on their commitments make a multilateral framework essential to ensuring North Korea’s complete denuclearization and its security afterwards. Such a framework, in China’s view, would address the near- and long-term concerns of both parties but would not be subject to any unilateral change of position by either the US or North Korea; therefore, it represents the most feasible way forward.
Beijing’s vision for the G20 meeting in Osaka, beyond the trade issue, is about the future direction of US-China relations and the demand for acknowledgement that the relations need stability and cooperation; competition does not need to poison everything. By visiting Pyongyang, Xi is signaling to Trump the essential role China intends to play and has to play in the North Korea nuclear talks in the hope of luring him into a new mirage of great power cooperation in the era of great power competition. In this sense, the “leveraging” of North Korea for trade is mostly posturing, with little value. Xi has a bigger fish to fry, which is Trump and the restoration of a sense of cooperation between the US and China. North Korea just happens to be the best, if not the only, card on the table.
China sees a lack of credibility of the Trump administration hindering the prospect of further cooperation with the US to force North Korea’s hand. China believes that it was lied to by the US on North Korea. During his first year in office, Trump linked China’s cooperation on North Korean sanctions and the trade deal together, claiming that China would get a better trade deal if it cooperated more with the US on North Korea. However, from China’s perspective, as soon as North Korea was forced back to the negotiating table in early 2018, the Trump administration abandoned such linkage and began to escalate the trade war with China, negating its previous position. Now reassured by the Hanoi summit that the US and North Korea are not able to reach a deal independently, China has more reason than ever to stick to the status quo instead of seeking a new arrangement that the United States may or may not honor in the future. In anticipation of further escalation of great power competition with the United States, it serves China’s interests to retain maximum leverage.
China does not seem to have sought to undermine the Trump-Kim summits in either Singapore or Hanoi in retaliation for Trump’s trade war. It might be concerned that Trump could further punish China if it were to undermine his foreign policy agenda. But more importantly, leveraging North Korea against Washington on trade may not have the desired effect because they carry different levels of importance for Trump. After preliminary diplomatic success to open the door with North Korea, the trade war with China is believed by Chinese experts to have become the higher-priority issue for Trump, especially in light of his reelection campaign. In addition, North Korea may not want to accommodate Chinese requests, which could sabotage its chance of bilateral negotiations with the United States.
Currently, the trade talks with the United States take precedence over the North Korea issue for Beijing. China is eager to reach a trade deal with the US to the extent that it can and is reluctant to let the North Korea issue interfere with the chances of success. This means that Beijing is likely to keep a low profile on the North Korea issue, to maintain its central role but detached from the US-DPRK negotiations, and to refrain from making new or offensive initiatives. On the public and official levels, China still maintains implementation of the UN sanctions on North Korea, which is predicated on its interest in nonproliferation and its reluctance to escalate its already negative relationship with the United States. Furthermore, beyond the trade war, what China needs to consider is the long-term prospect of US-China great power competition. The North Korea issue, in the minds of many Chinese strategists, has been a long game that defies quick solutions or short-term calculations. If the struggle with the United States continues into the foreseeable future, China’s top priority will be a comprehensive calculation of its interests across regions and across issues, instead of North Korea alone.
Another area where China is engaged in competition with the US is over South Korea. Although China’s relationship with South Korea suffered critical damage during the THAAD deployment episode, it increasingly puts the South in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing, forcing it to choose between the two. The most recent example is whether China’s tech giant, Huawei, should be allowed into the core market of South Korea. The contest of wills and influence between Washington and Beijing will continue, and the result is unlikely to be good news for Seoul’s top agenda of unification of the Korean Peninsula. Heightened great power competition will delay and hinder any compromises necessary for a future solution between Beijing and Washington regarding the Korean Peninsula. In the process, the choices of South Korea will inevitably antagonize one or both sides, deepening their distrust and contest on the peninsula.
The Hanoi summit had raised hope for a breakthrough on the North Korea nuclear issue. Its failure, however, attests to the reality that a real solution may not yet be on the horizon. In particular, the events reassure China that a bilateral solution is not feasible. Instead, it envisions a multilateral mechanism with its indispensable participation as the only feasible way forward. Such a vision inevitably is colored by the heightened sense of great power competition with the United States, which translates into an almost instinctive preference for the status quo for Beijing. The geopolitics associated with the future of the Korean Peninsula have become increasingly complicated, and the future solution that has to be based on great power coordination, sensible compromises, and visions beyond short-term gains has tragically become more difficult.
1. Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea if It Endangers U.S.,” The New York Times, August 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/world/asia/north-korea-un-sanctions-nuclear-missile-united-nations.html.
2. Xie Bing, “Zhongguo waizhang cheng Zhongmei hezuo dayu fenqi; jiejue Chaohe wenti Zhongguo zuoyong buke tidai,” VOA Chinese, March 8, 2019, https://www.voachinese.com/a/beijing-calls-for-more-collaboration-than-collision-with-us-while-emphasizing-china-s-role-in-peninsula-denuclearization-process–20190308/4818719.html
4. Philip Rucker, Simon Denyer, and David Nakamura, “North Korea’s foreign minister says country seeks only partial sanctions relief,” The Washington Post, February 28, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-and-kim-downplay-expectations-as-key-summit-talks-begin/2019/02/28/d77d752c-3ac5-11e9-aaae-69364b2ed137_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.48d86df04cb7
5. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Waijiaobu jiu Meichao shuangfang jiu zhijie duihua shifang de jiji xinxi deng dawen,” The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, March 9, 2018, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2018-03/09/content_5272722.htm
7. “Chaoxian xuanbu zhongzhi he shiyan yu zhouji dandao daodan fashe shiyan,” Xinhua News, April 21, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/2018-04/21/c_1122718625.htm
8. Huileng Tan, “China’s trade with North Korea dropped sharply in 2017,” CNBC, January 12, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/11/chinas-trade-with-north-korea-dropped-sharply-in-2017.html
9. “China’s trade with North Korea falls 51 pct in 2018,” Reuters, January 23, 2019, https://uk.reuters.com/article/china-economy-trade-northkorea/chinas-trade-with-north-korea-falls-51-pct-in-2018-idUKB9N1ZF003