When the news broke on March 8 that U.S. President Donald Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it was so unexpected that even U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed caught off guard. The announcement must have been doubly surprising, then, in China, where President Xi Jinping has shown no interest in meeting with Kim despite a nominal alliance between the two.
In the Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference on March 9, spokesperson Geng Shuang officially welcomed the news of a potential Trump-Kim summit. “We welcome the positive messages conveyed by the U.S. and the DPRK on direct dialogues,” Geng said, referring to North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is moving in a right direction towards its settlement. We fully commend and support the efforts made by all relevant parties to resolve this issue through dialogue and consultation.”
Later, Geng added that “China has stressed many times that the core of the Korean Peninsula issue is about the contradiction between the DPRK and the U.S. As parties directly concerned, the DPRK and the U.S. should conduct dialogue sooner rather than later.”
Xi himself told Trump in a March 9 phone call that he “welcomed the prospect of dialogue between the United States and North Korea,” according to a White House statement.
Despite those statements, China has cause to be concerned about the way the current round of diplomacy is unfolding. China is undoubtedly relieved that the threat of war over the North Korean nuclear issue has dropped markedly. However, the meetings and discussions that have reduced tensions have notably not included Beijing. Instead, inter-Korean dialogue has led the way, with South Korea in close communication with the United States. There’s little indication, however, that China’s own ally, North Korea, has been similarly briefing Beijing.
After leaving Washington, South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong is set to visit China, as well as Russia, in the near future to brief those governments on the results of his recent trip to North Korea (another delegation member will make a trip to Japan). However, in the press conference on Friday, Geng declined to provide details as to when Chung would arrive and whom he would meet with.
“The Chinese have virtually no control over this process; they even have very little input,” Bonnie Glaser, Senior Adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, told The Diplomat via email. “A breakthrough along the lines of Nixon’s opening to China — which is extremely remote — would cause concern in Beijing. While the Chinese want eased tensions, a U.S.-DPRK deal could have negative implications for Chinese interests.”
Though China often complains that it cannot be held responsible for North Korea’s actions, there are definite advantages to being seen as a key player in the Korean nuclear issue. In the past, China has positioned itself as mediator between North Korea and the other concerned parties, culminating in the China-led Six Party Talks that began in 2003 in Beijing, bringing together China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. Though the talks fell apart in 2009, China has continued to urge a return to that process and the joint statement issued on September 19, 2005.
The current diplomatic process, however, has narrowed the focus to three main players: the two Koreas and the United States. That leaves China on the outside looking in, even as the discussions being had (should they lead to concrete progress, which is far from certain) could have a critical impact on Chinese security interests. And so Beijing is left trying to find a way to reinsert itself into the conversation on Korean issues. As I noted earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s emphasis on China’s “dual freeze” proposal as being the “right prescription” for inter-Korean relations implied that a Chinese idea was behind the current breakthrough.
In fact, Glaser says, “The ‘dual freeze’ was never embraced by South Korea, North Korea or the United States, so it certainly wasn’t the main impetus for progress. Nevertheless, China wants to take credit and is portraying itself as the regional peacemaker.”
The main issue, from Beijing’s perspective, is that in the latest attempt to foster dialogue, there is no seat at the table for China. Talks have been taking place exclusively on an inter-Korean basis to date; now there is the added promise of a direct U.S.-North Korea dialogue. However, none of the statements issued so far (which notably have only come from South Korean officials) have raised the possibility of an expanded dialogue with China, much less a return to the full Six Party Talks. In fact, the statement from South Korea’s delegation immediately after their trip to Pyongyang focused on advances in inter-Korean relations, from a planned Moon-Kim summit at the end of April to a hotline between their leaders. Seoul also mentioned Pyongyang’s willingness to talk with the United States, specifically; other parties were not brought up.
And from North Korea’s perspective, a dialogue with the United States alone might more than suffice. Jean H. Lee, a veteran North Korea watcher and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, says that “Unlike father Kim Jong-il, who went to great effort in the last years of his life to strengthen relations with China, Kim Jong-un has only show disdain for China’s leadership.”
“[E]lite North Koreans resent that traditional dependence on China,” Lee told The Diplomat in an email. “[…T]hey chafe at the imperious manner with which Beijing has treated Koreans, not only today but through the centuries.
“Kim Jong-un is making it clear that he is no one’s ‘little brother’ — certainly not China’s. He wants to sit at the table with the United States.”
For Beijing, the potential for a U.S.-North Korea deal negotiated without Chinese input is alarming. “It is possible that Chinese interests can be protected in a bilateral U.S.-DPRK agreement, but there is no certainty and that will be China’s main concern,” Glaser says. “If there are discussions about a peace treaty, for example, Beijing will want to have a seat at the table and be part of the discussions, as well as a party to the treaty.”
In an earlier press conference, Geng was specifically asked about the concern “that China will be sidelined in the settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.” While he didn’t directly engage with that idea, Geng did make clear China will attempt to take part in future developments: “Going forward, China will work with all relevant parties to continuously move forward the process of denuclearizing the Peninsula and politically resolving the Korean Peninsula issue,” he said.
Chinese media has wrestled with the question more directly, but come away with a generally sanguine view of current developments. An editorial in the Chinese-language Global Times argued that “China should be happy” about a meeting between Trump and Xi, and urged Chinese people not to see recent developments as “China being marginalized.”
Instead, the editorial said, “We should keep in mind what China’s most important goals are on the Peninsula: the Peninsula’s denuclearization and peace and stability.” Those two points are more important that gains or losses in a great power chess match, Global Times argued.
The piece also argued that China doesn’t need to worry about North Korea getting too close to the United States because “it’s not possible” for one of China’s neighbors to completely rely on Washington. A good China-North Korea relationship is more important for Pyongyang than for Beijing, the article said, before pointing out that China could help ensure North Korea’s interests are respected and that it is not “cheated” by the United States during the denuclearization process.
In an interview with Xia Kedao of People’s Daily’s overseas edition, Zheng Jiyong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, likewise said there was no need to worry about China being sidelined because its role as a “guarantor” is irreplaceable. If China doesn’t get involved, Zheng predicted, current efforts won’t get past warm words. And even when China isn’t actively involved in diplomatic efforts, Zheng noted that its “three nos” policy for the Korean Peninsula – “no war, no chaos, no nuclear weapons” — has an “intimidating and stabilizing” effect on the situation.
“With such great economic, political, and military weight, China … can’t be bypassed,” Zheng concluded.