North Korea’s enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un made his first official diplomatic trip abroad this week, and chose Beijing as the destination. The trip was designed to signal friendship and cooperation between North Korea and China after a period of hostile relations. Nonetheless, this meeting between East Asian leaders was all about international positioning in relation to the United States under president Donald Trump.
North Korea’s relations with China, its closest ally, have been frosty since Kim Jong-un declared his increasing development of the country’s nuclear capacity on China’s doorstep. China has participated in United Nations sanctions against North Korea, and has disapproved of Kim’s very public and heated rhetoric in spats with Trump.
Chinese leaders fear instability on the Korean peninsula for a number of reasons. Most importantly, a North Korean collapse could lead to an influx of refugees to China, and access to China’s land border by US troops currently based in South Korea.
President Xi Jinping has presided over a renewed Chinese assertiveness on the international stage. Under his leadership, China has sought increasingly strong leadership or dominance in and beyond East Asia. Xi is leading an international campaign to portray China as an alternative and better leader of international order – and “better” here means better than the US. North Korea plays an important role in this story, because China needs to be seen to lead, or at the very least be a constructive part in, efforts to stabilise and contain North Korea.
When Trump announced his willingness to meet with Kim, some hailed it as a sign that sanctions and pressure had worked. Few dared suggest that it was perhaps Kim’s tactics of nuclear armament that had been perfectly rational and worked a treat in getting Trump to appear at the negotiating table.
The announcement presented both threats and opportunities for China and to North Korea. This week’s meeting between Xi and Kim represented efforts by both to enter new negotiations over nuclear disarmament and Korean relations with the strongest possible hand.
In Beijing, Kim reiterated his promise that he is ready to denuclearise, but on certain conditions. After this public show of allegiance by China, Kim can go into any negotiations with Trump with much more confidence. Xi, in turn, has had reason to be nervous about being marginalised. The meeting with Kim means China is now firmly positioned as a player in any developments. It is also important, because it helps bolster China’s claim of being a leader of peaceful international relations, a claim which matters both to its international ambitions and to the one-party state’s legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens.
And although privately Xi and Kim may not harbour many friendly feelings towards one another, their public friendship is based on solid utility and a shared interest. Both want the US out of the Korean peninsula. Of course, diplomacy is often all about finding middle grounds, but in a black-and-white version of the Korean dilemma two possible outcomes of upcoming talks are that the Korean peninsula is either home to both the US military and to North Korean nuclear weapons, or to neither. Kim’s conditions for denuclearisation may include things like aid and lifting of sanctions, but if he is bold it may also include withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.
Such possibilities would have seemed remote under previous US presidents, but under Trump it might just be achievable. The US president has long expressed the view that countries including in the Pacific should be made to take more responsibility for their own security, rather than relying on American resources. His “America first” policy has involved a withdrawal of leadership on a world stage. For the first time in a long time, it appears to be a possibility that the US might scale back its military presence in East Asia and the Korean peninsula.
Commentators have suggested that this American withdrawal of leadership under Trump is making room for China’s emergence and increasing assertiveness. A key effect of Trump’s America First policy may be to make China great again. If Xi and Kim get what they want in exchange for denuclearisation, and Trump withdraws or downscales the American military presence in Korea, this will have wide-ranging consequences for regional power relations. It would spell the definite end to the so-called Pax Americana and a world under US hegemony.
Dr Astrid Nordin is Director of Lancaster University China Centre.