North Korea remains China’s closest ally and trading partner and the potential of normalised relations with the U.S. threatens China’s traditional sphere of influence on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, North Korea’s increasing isolationist approach and nuclear capability threatens China’s hard security interests, with the worst-case scenario being U.S. troops on China’s borders.
It is important that Washington understands and includes Beijing’s role in any strategic and diplomatic calculations when dealing with North Korea.
On February 28, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Hanoi, Vietnam for a second summit on North Korean denuclearisation. The summit has been described as a foreign policy and diplomatic failure, with no tangible outcomes except that Trump has once again propped up and condoned the actions of an authoritarian leader.
The North Korean denuclearisation ‘deal’ still remains in the same stage as after the Singapore summit on June 12, 2018: North Korea has agreed to halt nuclear weapons testing and the U.S. has agreed to recess the annual large-scale joint military exercise with South Korea. Much analysis in light of the Hanoi summit has focused on the two leaders bypassing traditional diplomacy, and as a consequence allowing for personal perception and egos to dominate the negotiations.
Another big ego with significant stakes in the U.S.-North Korea Nuclear crisis is China and its leader Xi Jinping. North Korea is China’s only ally in East Asia and buffer against U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula. Beijing is cautiously watching the increasing U.S.-North Korean engagement with a mix of ambivalent fear and excitement.
On the one hand, China fears North Korea growing closer to the U.S. as it threatens China’s traditional sphere of influence in East Asia. On the other hand, North Korea’s increasing isolation in the international system and fiery rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington has become a thorn in the side of Beijing. The threat of an American invasion of North Korea whether credible or not has the potential of putting U.S. troops on the border of China for the first time since the 1956 Korean War, in which Mao Zedong’s only son lost his life.
Normalised relations between Washington and Pyongyang is viewed as an important step to ensuring a stable and peaceful climate in East Asia, something which is of the highest priority to China. Beijing believes peace and stability is key to ensuring China’s continued economic growth, which by extension ensures that Xi stays in power and his ambitious foreign policy project, The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), remains on track.
While BRI looks to connect China with the Eurasian continent and engage with China’s Western and Southern neighbours, instability on the Korean peninsula would divert Beijing’s attention from security threats in Central Asia, Pakistan and elsewhere. Still, it is not in China’s hard security interest to trade stability for exclusion from the decision-making process on the fate of the Korean Peninsula.
Kim has gone to substantial lengths to publicly ensure Xi Jinping that China will be consulted at every stage of the denuclearisation treaty. Since March 2018, Kim has paid official visits to Beijing the last one in January 2019 signalling to Washington that he has economic options if the negotiations fail. Almost all trade with North Korea goes through China and as long as Beijing has proven unwilling to close those channels, North Korea will be kept from drowning.
Although Beijing has expressed nothing but support for the a dual-track approach to the North Korean issue, it would be naïve of the U.S. to perceive China as a sideline player.
Instead, Washington ought to include Beijing in every strategic and diplomatic calculation when it comes to the goal of achieving total North Korean denuclearisation.