Last 28 March 2018, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported that Kim Jong-un paid a two-day visit to China. According to Xinhua’s report, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un had a successful talk in which the latter expressed his commitment to de-nuclearization. Interestingly, the report was auspiciously made after the issue of an impending U.S.-China trade war gained traction. In light of this development, it is essential to re-examine China’s relevance vis-à-vis Trump’s North Korea Policy.
Situating China in Trump’s North Korea Policy
Before leaving office, Barack Obama reportedly warned Donald Trump that North Korea will be the biggest security threat to America. Based on this assumption, Trump identified North Korea as one of the challenges to the Indo-Pacific regional balance of power. In this regard, his North Korea policy underscored that the U.S. must be ready to use overwhelming force in deterring North Korean aggression and improving options for the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In addition, his policy acknowledged the importance of China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea. For instance, while Trump’s National Security Strategy identified the deployment of a layered defense system in South Korea as a priority action, it assured that this will not disrupt America’s long-standing strategic relations with China.
Moreover, in several occasions beginning with the 2017 U.S.-China Summit, Trump has urged China to increase economic pressure on North Korea by supporting U.N. Security Council Resolutions and cutting its trade and oil-supply links with Pyongyang in exchange for economic incentives from Washington.
Enduring China-North Korea Relations
Prior to the informal meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, China-North Korea relations was believed to be turning cold in view of Beijing’s support to economic sanctions against Pyongyang. However, as recent developments indicate, China and North Korea maintain mutually beneficial relations. Politically, albeit indirectly, China provides support to North Korea by criticizing the deployment of the THAAD missile system and the conduct of joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korea. On the other hand, as a regional security threat, North Korea diverts U.S. attention from China’s territorial and maritime assertiveness and provides political leverage to China.
This leverage lies in China’s historical ties with North Korea and Beijing’s role as a regional peace broker. Economically, China remains to be North Korea’s largest trading partner and primary source of crude oil. In fact, notwithstanding China’s economic sanctions against North Korea, overall bilateral trade grew from 2010 to 2016, while Beijing’s export to Pyongyang increased in 2017. Aside from this relatively stable trade relations, China provides North Korea with foreign direct investments and economic support that help prevent the collapse of the Kim Regime and satisfy the political elites in Pyongyang’s worker’s party, military, and security services.
Challenges in Trump’s North Korea Policy
While engaging China is essential in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat, two challenges in Trump’s North Korea Policy must be seriously considered. First, Trump’s North Korea Policy coincides with a forthcoming power transition in the Indo-Pacific in which strategic distrust characterizes U.S.-China relations. As a revisionist power seeking to redefine the regional status quo, China is expected to adopt a cautious and opportunity-driven approach in cooperating with the U.S. for the future of the Korean Peninsula.
Mindful of the recent trilateral meeting between U.S., Japan, and South Korea, China will most likely deny the U.S. and its allies of any political and strategic advantage by developing a coordinated agenda with North Korea once the relevant powers resume the Six Party Talks. Likewise, China will most likely use future peace talks to underpin its relevance as a regional power.
As underscored by Xi Jinping, “China will continue to play a constructive role on the issue and work with all parties, including DPRK.” This announcement, which coincides with brewing economic tensions between U.S. and China, actually conveys two messages: 1) China is indispensable in promoting de-nuclearization in the Korean Peninsula; and 2) China may use the North Korean issue as a political leverage against the U.S. in other issues.
Second, there are immutable contradictions between Trump and Xi’s North Korea policies. While Trump’s North Korea policy contemplates de-nuclearization and reunification, Xi’s policy limits the end-state to de-nuclearization and stability in the Korean Peninsula. Since China considers North Korea as a buffer state against the U.S. forces in South Korea, it is not in the strategic interest of Beijing to support a U.S.-sponsored Korean Re-unification.
Relatedly, while Trump’s view of de-nuclearization is limited to that of North Korea’s arsenal, China’s freeze-for-freeze proposal implicitly supports Pyongyang’s position, so much so that de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should encompass the removal of U.S. military and missile systems from South Korea.
Indeed, these challenges indicate that China will play a complex and unpredictable role in Trump’s North Korea Policy.
*Christian Vicedo is a Senior Researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the NDCP.