China’s strategy to bolster its influence in the Asia-Pacific region has been making strides recently, as the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been moving in a positive direction for the Asian power.
If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledges to take concrete steps toward complete denuclearization, U.S. President Donald Trump could in return promise to shrink the U.S. military presence in South Korea, a move that would be welcomed in Beijing.
A possible improvement in the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington could also prompt North Korea to open its market to the world, which would provide a window of opportunity for China to expand its giant economy further.
At a joint news conference following a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang expressed hope for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and regional stability.
“To this end, China will continue to play a constructive role,” Li said, a day after Kim returned from a surprise two-day trip to China and held his second summit with President Xi Jinping since late March.
Li’s comment was followed by a joint declaration released on Wednesday at midnight. “We stress that it is only the international cooperation on and the comprehensive resolution of concerns of the parties … that will pave the way for the bright future for the DPRK,” the three leaders said in the statement, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But it is unclear whether the three neighbors are completely on the same page due to their differing approaches toward the shared goal.
It took more than half a day for the joint declaration to be issued due to differences over its wording and content, including a description of the history of the relationship between Japan and China, a negotiation source said.
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang sharply deteriorated last year as China increased economic sanctions against North Korea while Kim pursued ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs in defiance of international warnings.
With Beijing having previously accounted for around 90 percent of Pyongyang’s external trade, economic sanctions imposed by China are thought by some to have dealt a fatal blow to North Korea’s broader economy.
Bilateral ties, however, drastically changed after Kim made a trip to Beijing in March and confirmed with Xi that the two countries will enhance strategic communication and deepen its traditional friendship.
At a forthcoming U.S.-North Korea summit, expected to be held by the end of June, Kim may call on Trump to ensure the continuation of his nation’s hereditary regime in return for promising to achieve denuclearization in a “phased” and “synchronized” manner.
By mending ties with China, Kim has been trying to garner support from Xi before what are expected to be tough negotiations with Trump, who has urged North Korea to abandon all its nuclear weapons.
“I don’t think that any negotiations that sideline China will have much impact,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.
“China is a crucial player and it is clear that much of the progress towards negotiations is due to China’s influence over North Korea,” he added.
At their landmark summit on April 27, held at a South Korean facility in the truce village of Panmunjom, Kim and Moon agreed to pursue “complete denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula and strive to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War.
In the war, United Nations forces led by the United States fought alongside South Korea against the North, which was supported by China and the Soviet Union.
Hostilities ceased with an armistice agreement signed on July 27, 1953 by the United Nations Command, North Korea and China.
Kim and Moon also made an agreement that the two countries will “actively pursue” trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving China.
If the Korean War were to end, North Korea may really give up nuclear weapons and the United States would reduce or withdraw its military presence in South Korea, analysts said.
“As long as relevant parties abolish their hostile policies and remove security threats against the DPRK, there is no need for the DPRK to be a nuclear state and denuclearization can be realized,” Kim was quoted by China’s Xinhua News Agency as telling Xi.
Trump, meanwhile, has reportedly ordered the Defense Department to prepare options for drawing down U.S. troops in South Korea.
China is likely to welcome the adoption of such positions by Pyongyang and Washington.
“In terms of geopolitics, (China) has no choice but to be concerned about developments on the peninsula due to the strategic importance and U.S. military presence,” Kingston said.
Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said, “All major powers like to maintain influence over their periphery as China refers to its neighbors.”
South Korea is one of the most dependent allies of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, Cook said, adding, “China would like to weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance, an alliance that is primarily focused on the threat from North Korea.”
In addition, an improvement in U.S.-North Korea relations would help shore up the Chinese economy.
Last month, the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea said it had decided to dismantle its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the country’s northeast, as well as suspend nuclear and missile tests, state-run media said.
The ruling party also said it “will concentrate all efforts on building a powerful socialist economy,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, suggesting Kim will put more emphasis on economic improvement than on development of nuclear weapons.
“If North Korea under Kim Jong Un chooses to seek better relations with the United States and South Korea and open up more to the world this would benefit China,” Cook said.