He can allegedly launch a nuclear missile at a Californian city, but when it comes to getting to Singapore he has to borrow a jumbo jet from China. It is one of the many paradoxes of the Kim Jong-un regime.
The footage of his arrival at Changi Airport showed North Korea’s leader standing in front of an Air China plane. It was a symbolic reminder that despite his being in Singapore to meet the US president, he still relies very much on China.
And though China was not a participant in this summit, its influence and its interests were conspicuously present. Indeed, some commentators have concluded that – in geopolitical terms – Beijing was the big winner of the Trump-Kim meeting.
A Nixon-Mao moment?
Never mind the art of the deal, the focus of the world’s media was the science of the handshake this week as Trump and Kim made diplomatic history in a Singapore hotel. Before hundreds of clicking cameras they walked towards each other and grasped palms.
Experts in body language pronounced solemnly on the greeting, noting that it lasted 12 seconds, nowhere near Trump’s 26-second handshake with Abe Shinzo, the Japanese prime minister, last year.
Notably the American president decided against the arm-yanking that he often deploys, preferring a subtler caress of Kim’s elbow during their opening encounter.
The politics of the handshake certainly mattered deeply to the Chinese in the mid-1950s, when American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles astonished their delegation by refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai. They stewed for years until Richard Nixon remedied the slight by grasping the same man’s hand on his arrival in Beijing in 1972.
“Your handshake came over the vastest ocean in the world – 25 years of no communication,” the Chinese premier said in gracious response.
Nixon’s famous trip to meet Zhou’s boss Mao Zedong launched a groundbreaking and previously unthinkable new era in Sino-US relations. Not surprisingly that meeting was getting coverage again this week, with comparisons drawn with the Trump-Kim summit. This was despite the fact that the Chinese weren’t invited to join the event. Beijing did play a crucial role in getting the two men to the table, however, and in this triangular relationship its objectives were every bit as relevant as those of Washington and Pyongyang.
Didn’t the Chinese feel excluded from events in Singapore?
The backdrop to the summit was speculation that Beijing was nervous about the meeting between Kim and Trump, fearing that North Korea might sideline it to strike a denuclearisation deal.
Pyongyang has been Beijing’s staunch ally for decades, but history teaches that grand alliances can undergo dramatic shifts.
The Nixon visit was a good example: in that case China wooed its former enemy in order to put pressure on its former ally and erstwhile economic benefactor, the Soviet Union.
“China can see some shocking resemblance to Nixon coming to China with Trump and North Korea,” Yun Shun, an analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington told the New York Times in advance of the summit. “If China could do it, why not North Korea?”
The threat of a reversal to the established order came after a lengthy period in which the Chinese have struggled to restrain their smaller neighbour. Despite the standard line that the two nations are “as close as lips and teeth”, Kim showed little sign of responding to Chinese calls for a halt to his missile programme last year, sanctioning 20 ballistic missile tests and a hydrogen bomb detonation.
In a sign of his displeasure, Xi Jinping had refused to meet his neighbour, despite making trips to more than 50 countries since he became Chinese leader. In fact, relations were in such a deep freeze that the two countries had arranged the fewest high-level exchanges since the Mao era, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests.
All that changed once Trump signalled that he was willing to meet Kim in person. Almost immediately there were two visits to China for the North Korean leader (see WiC403) and talk of a return trip by Xi to Pyongyang later this year.
And as the Chinese scrambled to stay ahead of events, the country’s media was predictably unsubtle in pointing out how ‘normal’ relations were being resumed. Keeping the relationship with North Korea in good health was the “choice both sides have made based on history and reality,” Xi had declared and Kim took the same view, Xinhua said, celebrating an “unshakeable” friendship that was “unchanged despite winds and rains”.
Can anything meaningful be achieved in North Korea without the Chinese?
Although they were kept away from the action in Singapore, the Chinese played a key role in bringing Trump and Kim together and they will be crucial in getting a deal done over the longer term.
Notably the Air China jet he arrived on is usually reserved for trips by senior Chinese leaders. The use of the plane was “quite symbolic”, agreed the Global Times, underlining that China was “the main party that has helped the Trump-Kim summit overcome various issues, allowing it to be finally held”.
The North Koreans seemed happy to acknowledge the help in their own media, publishing photos of Kim leaving the jet and mentioning the “Chinese plane” in reports.
It was certainly a different picture to last year when Beijing’s tightening of economic sanctions soured relations with Pyongyang.
Because the Chinese account for more than 90% of the renegade nation’s foreign trade, the impact was immediate once Beijing enforced UN resolutions with greater resolve – choking off its exports of coal, textiles and seafood, and restricting it access to oil (see WiC355).
At the summit’s press conference Trump recognised this fact as well, complimenting “a very special person, President Xi of China” for closing the border, though adding “maybe a little less so over the last couple of months, but that’s okay”.
Later in the session Trump seemed keener to downplay the Chinese role. “We’re working with South Korea, Japan. We’re working with China… to a lesser extent, but we’re working with China,” he said.
Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that he needs the Chinese to stay involved because he wants the sanctions to stay in effect. That may be difficult to sustain as Beijing will have less reason to keep the sanctions going if Kim pulls back from the weapons testing that characterised much of last year.
Indeed, almost as soon as the summit had finished, China’s foreign ministry was calling for a rethink: a suspension of the embargo or its lifting in accordance with the North’s actions.
Won’t Beijing and Washington have to collaborate to find a solution?
Another theme in the coverage of the summit is that constraining Kim is requiring the two superpowers to work closer together.
But there is disagreement on where the dangers are greatest: Washington is much more concerned about Kim’s capacity to strike at targets on American soil, while Beijing fears that millions of refugees will pour across the border in the event of a war.
For China Kim’s regime provides a vital purpose: it offers a buffer zone with South Korea where American troops are stationed. (One of Beijing’s greatest strategic fears is having US troops on China’s border.)
But the Chinese are also worried that further rounds of missile tests by Kim will trigger irreparable changes in the regional status quo. The South Koreans have already responded by deploying an anti-missile shield, despite furious opposition from Beijing (see WiC357). And the bigger worry for Chinese policymakers is that Japan will feel compelled to develop a nuclear deterrent of its own.
In this context, the vagueness of the denuclearisation process that was outlined at the summit is both a strength and a weakness, given it allows very different interpretations from each of the parties concerned.
In practical terms analysts believe the Chinese will need to be part of any concerted effort to dismantle Kim’s arsenal, especially as there is likely to be a truncated timeline for standing down parts of his nuclear programme.
“If that’s the case, Beijing will have a role to play on how to implement the deals,” Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post. “That includes inspecting the North Korean nuclear shutdown, as well as a role in the economic development Kim is seeking for his country.”
Christopher Hill, formerly the American chief negotiator in the Six-Party Talks instigated during the George W Bush administration, said something similar in an interview with Caixin this week, warning, “there will be no solution to North Korea without China’s participation – that’s a fact”.
This reality is a bargaining chip for Beijing in other parts of the Sino-US relationship: that already seems to be playing out in this week’s reversal of Washington’s ban on the sale of American parts to ZTE, a major Chinese manufacturer of telecoms equipment. As previously discussed in WiC406, the American ban on selling chips to ZTE had crippled the Chinese firm’s ability to do business, and forced it to halt manufacturing.
ZTE has agreed to pay a $1 billion fine and host a team of American officials to monitor its conduct for the next 10 years. By any token, it is a humiliating set of circumstances and just the kind of extra-territorial censure that the Chinese government finds hard to stomach. But Trump also gave ground in the case because he sees it as part of the bigger picture of his relationship with the Chinese.
Peter Navarro, a trade advisor at the White House and a fierce critic of the Chinese, said as much on Fox News on Tuesday, confirming that the president “did this as a personal favour to the president of China as a way of showing some goodwill for bigger efforts, such as the one here in Singapore”.
Overall, the Chinese will be pleased by the summit?
Trump’s critics complain that he got no concrete commitments from Kim, despite handing him at least two major concessions (a huge propaganda triumph merely by shaking his hand and the cancellation of US-South Korea joint military exercises).
The president’s supporters have countered that there have been achievements from engaging with North Korea, including the moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners and the closure of a missile test site.
Two Norwegian politicians have also nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize after his meeting with Kim (a record 330 people were nominated for the 2018 award), although a formal peace deal to end the Korean War was not agreed during the Singapore summit as some observers had hoped.
It is much easier to make a positive case for what the Chinese got out of events in Singapore. In the lead-up to the summit they repaired some of their relations with Pyongyang, which had been frosty for years. They also wanted a cooling of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which the summit should achieve. And the denuclearisation proposals that Trump has put on the table look very similar to the “freeze-for-freeze” plan that Beijing has been advocating for years. (no missile testing in exchange for no military exercises).
Trump’s decision to end what he termed “war games” overturned the policy of prior US administrations and he went even further by indicating that he would like to pull American troops out of South Korea over the longer term, which would represent a huge strategic prize for the Chinese.
Such comments clearly caught the South Koreans off-guard and a spokesman in Seoul rushed out the holding line that “at this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks require more clear understanding”.
Simply by signalling a desire to bring the troops home, Trump has stirred doubts about America’s commitments to its other allies in Asia, who will have to rethink their relationships in the region, particularly with a rising China (the biggest questions will be asked in Tokyo, which for decades has relied on the US security umbrella but may now wonder if it can rely on Washington for its defence).
CNN’s Matt Rivers made plain his view on who ‘won’ the summit: “One: China hates the US troop presence in South Korea and Japan; two: China hates the US regional military exercises; three: China wants an excuse to end sanctions on North Korea. Make no mistake the Singapore Summit was a big win for China.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s China Times noted that Kim has been planning for North Korea’s open-door policy – inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 playbook – and China could again emerge as “the biggest winner” over North Korea’s economic reforms.
Perhaps it was no wonder that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sounded so complimentary about the summit. “China of course welcomes and supports this,” Wang said of the talks. “Because this is the goal we have hoped for and have been working for.”
Of course, this week’s meeting does not mark anything like the end of the process and Chinese gains could soon ebb away. The reason being the sheer extent of the negative media coverage in the US – where the consensus is that Trump ‘lost’ the negotiation with Kim. Such comments will very likely irk the US leader. One thing we know about Trump: he hates to be portrayed as a loser. Bearing that in mind – and likewise his voracious obsession with media coverage of himself – it’s not inconceivable that he might backtrack on some of his concessions.
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