By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
An abrupt end of the Hanoi summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea on 28 February 2019 was disappointing for many. But for many others, it was unsurprising because the two parties did not have enough exchanges and understanding at the official level before the summit and there were considerable gaps in their respective positions. After the summit, the US and North Korea have gradually been hardening their positions on the issue of latter’s de-nuclearisation and it appears that both sides have been drifting away rather than moving towards an accommodative position.
The US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun said Washington would not agree on an ‘incremental’ approach to denuclearise North Korea and argued for an all-or-none approach. In response, North Korea expressed that it has been contemplating over whether to continue talks with the US and maintain its self-moratorium on its nuclear and missiles tests. In a way, the Washington-Pyongyang engagement on the denuclearisation issue has been passing through a critical phase and there is a real possibility of a derailment of the process.
Amidst all these developments, Beijing has been quite circumspect. The Spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, Lu Kang, stated that China considered it premature to call it a setback or failure of the US-North Korea talks, and that Beijing would like to ‘listen to what the US and the DPRK governments will say’ in future. He added that China hopes that the DPRK and the US “will continue to engage in dialogue, show sincerity, respect and accommodate each other’s legitimate concerns and jointly promote denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.”
Actually, it appears that China still does not want to take a clear stand on the current disconnect between the Washington and Pyongyang. It is interesting to note that China has intrinsically been part of the US-North Korea talks and provided important logistical assistance for the Hanoi summit when the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, covered a long train journey to Hanoi via China. China reportedly expected progress in the US-North Korea talks as these talks happened as per the Chinese framework. In the talks, two important Chinese suggestions—denuclearisation of North Korea and use of diplomatic means—were adhered to and Beijing would have been satisfied if some progress had been made. North Korea has also been in close consultation with China. To illustrate, Kim and China’s President Xi Jinping met four times and coordinated their policy objectives.
In fact, China has been in agreement with the North Korean demand that since some ‘positive developments’ have been achieved in the process of North Korea’s de-nuclearisation, proportional concessions must be provided to North Korea vis-à-vis international sanctions. However, the US has not been keen to consider any such proposal. Washington wants to achieve a significant level of denuclearisation in North Korea before providing any concession on the sanctions. The US believes that if the sanctions are diluted, North Korea might use the window to buy time and after a breathing span, might go back to its effort towards nuclearisation. China appears to share North Korea’s point that given this low level of trust between the US and North Korea, it would be over-ambitious to put forth such unrealistic demands to North Korea. China is also dissatisfied with the fact that in Hanoi, at the last moment, US President Donald Trump refused to relax any sanctions on North Korea in exchange for verified dismantlement of Yongbyon and some other facilities.
However, China chose to be silent and cautious. China’s choice could basically be understood in the context of its trade war with the US. China seeks to have a successful workable deal with the US in near future on the trade issues and a failure to do so would have serious implications for the Chinese economy, which is continuing to slow down. In fact, Xi would be worried by Trump’s open threat that he is “never afraid to walk from a deal,” and that he “would do that with China, too, if it didn’t work out.” Xi is scheduled to visit the US around 27 March and he appears to be careful that any open stand on the Hanoi summit might become a stumbling block for China’s possible deal with the US. For the same reason, contrary to expectations, China advised Kimnot to have a stop-over in Beijing while returning from Hanoi.
Thus, China’s silence or circumspection on the Hanoi summit is a deliberate strategy to let the US and North Korea clarify their responses and positions further. It is also a deliberate choice on China’s part to avoid its shadow on the US-China summit meet in the late March. However, China definitely is in proximity with North Korea’s position. Beijing would like to make a clearer statement about the Hanoi summit once the outcomes of the US-China summit are decided and it would also like to use the issue in its negotiation with the US.
*Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS.