China’s goal from the summit between the US and North Korea is two-fold. It wants a stable North Korea so that there is no political unpredictability and chaos on its borders, and there is no instability on North Korea’s nuclear control issue. It is also hoping for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula so that there are no nuclear weapons in the peninsula and there is no need for the US to deploy theatre missile defence systems in the region. Based on these goals, China hopes for peace between the US and North Korea on these conditions—North Korea formally agrees to denuclearise, and the US commits a peace approach towards North Korea without a regime change. Wording of this announcement will be vague, allowing each side to claim accomplishment. Nevertheless, how the real world will work after the summit remains to be seen.
Ultimately, China wishes for seven ‘no’s regarding nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula: no test, no production, no weapons, no storage, no passage, no deployment and no use.
China has had close ties, historically, with Korea, conferring legitimacy to whoever was the Korean king. The two visits by Kim to China before the summit with the US indicate that China plays a role by providing North Korea some assurance and by aligning with the country. The assurance is an incremental step towards denuclearisation and the policy of no regime change. China’s assurance to Kim boosts his confidence to negotiate with the US.
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But, China realises that Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons as the Libyan model frightens him a lot. In fact, the Kim dynasty does not trust the US at all; we should not forget that North Korea is a member of what the US described as the ‘axis of evil’. While two members, Iraq and Libya, had been destroyed by the US, the third one, Iran, is fighting an uphill battle. Although China remains ambivalent about a pullback of US forces from the Korean peninsula, the move can further reduce the US’s influence in the peninsula and the whole of east Asia. Japan may feel isolated in the wake of a US pullback in South Korea. On the other hand, China can achieve what Xi Jinping told former US president Barack Obama that the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate both China and the US.
China felt surprised when Trump agreed to meet with Kim, and a direct meeting between the two leaders have made China uneasy because China was a player in the armistice. But, eventually, China’s interests can be protected as long as Kim needs China’s assurance. And, it seems that with China’s economic size and growing capability, they are confident that even a unified Korea will be under the shadow of China.
A decade ago, North Korea, under the Kim dynasty, was regarded as a troublemaker by the Chinese people. With Kim’s turnaround, I guess their perception has changed.
Ding is professor emeritus, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.