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China has been North Korea’s most important diplomatic ally as well as its largest trading partner. Beijing has also been the largest supplier of food, oil and other essentials to North Korea and has thus helped in the survival of the North Korean regime. Even though China has been supporting the regime as it has always feared the outcomes of a failed North Korea, Beijing has been unhappy with the North Korean nuclear ambitions; and thus under Xi Jinping China did agree to adhere to the United Nations sanctions, though reluctantly.


The physical absence of China from the recently concluded ‘historical’ summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, between the President of the United States (US), Donald Trump and the leader of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un has raised a number of questions. The general perception and argument have been that China has lost its influence on North Korea, a long-term ally, to the US. It also gave the impression that the DPRK is more keen and restless to gain international recognition of the regime, which can be obtained only with the help of the US. Furthermore, it portrayed Washington as the key player, interested in resolving the issue of nuclearlisation of the Korean Peninsula.


However, the fact that it was Air China Jet, which Kim used to travel to Singapore reiterates his trust and dependence on Beijing. This needs to be viewed in the context of Kim’s phobia of modes of overseas travel. In addition to this, Kim had met the Chinese leader Xi Jinping twice in preparation for the summit with Trump, thus asserting the argument that in no way the Chinese influence has reduced. Even though not much has been written or disclosed about these visits, it can be safely concluded that Kim understands that China is the strongest ally North Korea has and if the meeting with Trump had to succeed he needed Xi Jinping’s ‘blessings’. Both the trips were ‘surprise’ visits and the discussions are still shrouded in mystery. It can also be argued that Kim did not want to upset or preempt Chinese perceptions or hurt Xi’s sentiments anymore, as they both started the relationship on not a very cordial note.


The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also acknowledged the role played by China in making the Singapore Summit a possibility. His visit to China after the summit highlighted the relevance and core position of Beijing in the future of the negotiations. In the words of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, “I don’t think anybody should doubt the unique and important role China plays in this process.”


The general argument about the Trump-Kim summit has been that North Korea emerged as the ‘winner’ in exchange for the promise of de-nuclearisation, Trump agreed to suspend the US-South Korea military drill and also promised to withdraw the 29,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. However, there is no final time-line agreed upon for the de-nuclearisation. The meeting also provided the Kim regime with international recognition and acceptance.


Following the summit, Kim visited Beijing on June 19 to brief Xi Jinping about the proceedings of the summit. During the June 19 meeting, Xi asserted the friendship between China and North Korea. In the words of Xi Jinping, “No matter how the international and regional situations change, the firm stance of the CPC [Chinese Communist Party] and the Chinese government on consolidating and developing the relations with the DPRK remains unchanged, the Chinese people's friendship with the DPRK people remains unchanged, and China’s support for the socialist DPRK remains unchanged.”


Right after the conclusion of the summit China had started arguing about the withdrawal of sanctions imposed on North Korea. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson argued, “The relevant resolutions passed by the UN Security Council stipulate that … adjustment to the sanctions has to be made in accordance with the situation on how North Korea has implemented the agreement – including suspending or removing relevant sanction measures.” China has been arguing that the pressure on North Korea has worked and thus there is no need for the sanctions. On the other hand, Beijing has always been worried about a failed North Korea and the huge refugee influx into China. China is also the largest trading partner of North Korea and is now interested in pushing for programmes with a focus on the growth of the North Korean economy.


The promise made by President Trump to stop the military exercises between the US and South Korea as well as the possible withdrawal of American troops stationed there is an acceptance of ‘freeze for freeze’ proposal pushed by China for the last few years. In 2017 the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out, “As a first step, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises.” This proposal is another indicator of the Chinese influence on the summit.


In the words of Yu Dunhai, a counselor in China’s foreign ministry, the US President is actually interacting with North Korea as per Chinese expectations as the Chinese had always hoped for an understanding President. This sentiment is further stressed by Wu Xinbo, an expert on international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University. Wu argued that “The results of the Singapore Summit are basically in line with China’s expectations.” In the wake of the ongoing trade tensions between China and the US, some scholars are already arguing that to win and put more pressure on the US, Beijing may use its leverage with North Korea and thus decide the actual future of the ongoing talks. Though far-fetched it may prove to be a bargaining chip for China vis-à-vis the US.


However, if the talks achieve what they set out to do, all will not be in favour of the Chinese as well. If the US decides to withdraw from East Asia physically, it may give rise to a major security vacuum in the region. Both South Korea and Japan are heavily dependent on the nuclear umbrella provided by the US, guaranteeing them security on the one hand, and preventing them from going nuclear on the other. However, keeping in view the security threat and the willingness of North Korea to talk, Japanese Prime Minister has agreed to meet Kim towards the end of 2018 and the role of Seoul in making this Summit a success cannot be overlooked. The meetings between the South Korean and North Korean leaders actually set the ground for the Summit in Singapore.


In the event of US’ physical withdrawal, both Seoul and Tokyo may be pushed into taking matters into their own hands. Keeping in perspective the ongoing territorial and island disputes, (like the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan) the situation may not be totally to China’s liking. Therefore, one can argue that China would push for the maintenance of the status quo and also look for ways for the North Korean regime to gain international recognition as it serves the dual purposes for China, and helps Beijing both economically and militarily.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.