During the run-up to last week’s Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, China was petrified that its closest ally and neighbor, North Korea, could pivot toward political orbit of the United States in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees.
Beijing’s fear was grounded in its own past experience: that China itself has a record of flipping its allegiance with the Soviet Union and pivoting toward better relations with the U.S. In spite of being socialist comrades with Moscow for 25 years after World War II, Beijing tilted toward the U.S. to balance Soviet hubris and increasing bellicosity.
In 1972, top-level diplomats of both countries engineered a summit between the arch-anticommunist U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong, resulting in a fundamental reorientation of Sino-U.S. relations. This “Nixon moment” shifted the Cold War in favor of the U.S.-led West — and laid the capitalist seeds for China’s phenomenal economic growth by opening the country to investment from the outside world.
Present-day Beijing’s concerns with North Korea were not without substance.
For one, relations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping were bitter, until the two leaders met in March. North Korea occasionally talks about Sino-North Korean relations in acerbic ways, pointing to the hundreds of invasions by China during the course of its history. Pyongyang’s economic dependence made it feel it was under the thumb of Beijing, with China accounting for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade volume.
But with the Trump-Kim summit ending short of a formal end to the Korean War — as U.S. President Donald Trump suggested before the historic meeting — Beijing’s fear of losing North Korea to the Americans has receded.
Trump claims that the summit has radically transformed the North Korea-U.S. relationship. In reality, however, the agreement itself is old wine in a new bottle — or arguably worse than previous agreements with North Korea.
On denuclearization, the summit’s joint statement made no mention of the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID, of North Korea — but merely mentioned it in the context of the Korean Peninsula in general. This is basically a rehash of Pyongyang’s long-standing, ambiguous position, which in their definition means the withdrawal of America’s nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan.
Without losing anything, Kim has engineered a diplomatic coup, achieving what his father and grandfather could only have dreamed of: A face-to-face meeting with a sitting U.S. president as an equal nuclear power. This will garner him ample political capital to push through incremental economic reforms at home, while deepening old partnerships with China and Russia, and cultivating new partners through diplomacy — all the while maintaining the North’s nuclear deterrent.
Beijing can most likely live with another nuclear neighbor, as long as that neighbor is not a geopolitical rival such as India. With bonhomie prevailing at the “historic” summit, any possibility of a U.S. military solution to the North Korea problem has fizzled. Beijing now has little reason to push Pyongyang for full denuclearization, as long as diplomatic dialogue ensures that Washington cannot pursue a military solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.
This serves Beijing well, as the region returns to the status quo, with a deep fissure driven into the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Now that Beijing’s primary concerns regarding North Korea have all but dissipated, it can use economic carrots to make sure Pyongyang does not endanger China’s core interests, including national security, territorial integrity, and ensuring stable social and economic growth.
A return to the status quo in which a military option is now off the table means Beijing can argue that severe sanctions are no longer necessary as Pyongyang is engaging in good faith diplomacy — something which Beijing already indicated hours after the Trump-Kim summit.
Economic development initiatives such as South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s idea of linking the two Koreas and China with three beltways will make international sanctions Pyongyang increasingly difficult to realize.
What is more, with Beijing having less to worry about its geopolitical stability, Xi can return to focusing on China’s economic realignment at home and extending its influence in the East China Sea and South China Sea through “lawfare” — the incremental erosion of sovereignty claims of neighboring countries by exploiting international law.
This is welcome news for the Chinese leadership, as the North Korean missile and nuclear testing over the past year resulted in the U.S. taking a more muscular position in the region, both militarily and diplomatically.
Another windfall for Beijing is that Trump’s post-summit remarks have raised further questions about America’s commitment to its regional alliances. Just hours after the summit, Trump unilaterally declared to halt joint military exercises with South Korea, calling them “very costly” and “provocative.”
For Beijing, the mere perception of a weaker U.S.-led alliance in East Asia would be a geopolitical boon for its long-term interests in pushing the U.S. out of the region. Should America’s current detente with North Korea continue, Beijing could gain more reason to chip away at the U.S. -South Korea alliance. If the U.S. dials back its muscular posture, Beijing can insist that Seoul no longer has reason to maintain the American missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — which Beijing claims is aimed at China as well. More impactful, though, would be arguments that U.S. troops are no longer need in South Korea at all.
Going forward, Beijing will continue to encourage Pyongyang’s diplomacy and provide economic incentives to keep it under its sphere of influence.
We are now back to the status quo until both sides engage in reciprocal confidence-building measures. In order to ensure conditions for denuclearization, this will take time, shrewd diplomacy and insulation from domestic politics in the U.S. With the November mid-term elections around the corner, Trump will be looking for ways to translate his theater summitry to substantial results.
That indicates more theater diplomacy, which will have negative effects on the denuclearization of North Korea — something that the rulers of North Korea and China could not be happier about.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University.