udging foreign policy maneuvers is always difficult for an external observer, since diplomacy really takes place behind the scenes. But not all activity is easily hidden – and some public statements do express genuine intentions of the side that’s making it. By reading between the lines and observing everything else that’s going on in the background we can infer in more detail what really is going on.
Unfortunately, in the North Korean drama, it’s really difficult to find any definitive answers – because they can be only found in Beijing.
In Xi Jinping’s head.
North Korean Pivot
Pyongyang has a habit of baiting the West with promises of disarmament and peace talks, only to squeeze some concessions and then abandon the table when it no longer suits its needs. We’ve all seen it before.
That said, even taking this checkered history into account, recent rapprochement between warring Koreas was still a truly historical event, full of gestures of good will, milestone declarations and, seemingly, fruitful talks. It was also very surprising given very loud – and very recent – exchanges between North Korea and the US.
So, where did such a sudden change come from? And why now?
To understand it we must look beyond direct Korean relations or Pyongyang’s clashes with Washington. Focusing on North Korean nuclear program only draws attention from the real conflict – the tussle between USA and China.
Donald Trump refocused American attention away from secondary, regional issues of the Middle East – which occupied the previous US presidents of the post-Soviet age – onto the biggest challenge USA has to deal with this century – reemergence of China.
Seeking a balanced relationship, the new American administration quickly picked up as many bargaining chips as it could, to pressure the Middle Kingdom on multiple fronts simultaneously.
Trade, status of Taiwan as well nuclear program in North Korea – a country that exists solely thanks to Chinese support – are the angles of attack.
The end goal is to normalize trade relations, starting with deficit which amounts to over $300bn every year, filling Chinese coffers with precious dollars they can later spend taking ownership of attractive American assets. There’s also a question of equality of access to each other’s markets as well as intellectual property protections.
All of these are fundamental elements of American future. US can’t compete on size with a rival commanding a population of 1.5 billion people – so it has to keep qualitative advantages if it is to retain its status. Consequently, everything not related to trade is of secondary importance and valuable chiefly as a diplomatic leverage.
Time, however, is not American ally.
China is closing the gaps every year, while enjoying benefits of the lopsided relationship – a result of negligence of past American administrations. That’s why Trump took the challenge on within the first year of his presidency. The quicker he can seal a grand deal, the earlier its positive results can be felt by American economy – improving his own standing in the country as well.
American weaknesses and desires are therefore pretty well known. Less certain is what Chinese leadership makes of them.
The Man Behind the Mask
Xi Jinping can afford to be far less outwardly in his behavior than Donald Trump. Not only is maintaining an impenetrable façade in public a cultural habit of the Chinese civilization but, in addition, communist party leaders don’t have to contend in public elections. As a result, he doesn’t have to manifest his intentions and may keep them hidden from public view, allowing him more diplomatic flexibility.
Of course China is not yet able to challenge the global position of the US. Economically, despite reducing its reliance on exports as a driver of GDP growth, it cannot imperil $500bn worth of goods and services sold to the US every year. Chinese leaders might not have to campaign to keep their seats, but they still come under some public scrutiny and any hiccups to economic growth could be very costly to them – while a widespread turmoil could undermine the entire country.
We know that Chinese leadership cooperated with the US on North Korea – since president Trump thanked Xi Jinping publicly for his help. We also know that, at the end of March, Kim Jong-un visited Beijing in his first international visit in 7 years he’s been in charge. It’s quite clear then that China played a critical role in enabling the landmark meeting in Panmunjom.
The question is, though, is what were its real intentions?
At the Crossroads
What, just a few weeks ago, looked like a historical achievement of American diplomacy, has equally surprisingly started to turn sour, with North Korean withdrawal from the planned follow up meeting with South Korea this week.
The official reason is their protest over currently ongoing Max Thunder 2018 joint US-SK air force drills. Pyongyang went even further and threatened to call off the highly anticipated summit in Singapore over, what it calls, another American provocation.
But something is not quite right about these accusations.
April saw the other annual events – Foal Eagle and Key Resolve 2018 drills – that were carried out over several previous weeks. Yet, somehow, they have not prevented the meeting in Panmunjom. ‘Max Thunder’ is merely their extension – planned well in advance and known to all parties.
There was no surprise here, so why did North Koreans throw a tantrum and withdrew from scheduled talks in the last minute? Will they really pull the plug on the meeting in Singapore as well?
While the world’s focus is on Kim Jong-un we must go back to March 25th and his unexpected visit to Beijing.
What did Xi Jinping really tell him? What instructions did he give him?
Until this week it all looked as if the Chinese yielded to American insistence and pressured North Korean regime to change its course, so that Beijing can salvage its relations with the US, displaying good will before bargaining over trade really kicks off.
And if that’s so, then Pyongyang’s aggressive tone might simply be posturing before the summit in June, showing to Seoul and Washington that while they are willing to negotiate, they are not going to do it lying down.
However… what if the Chinese don’t really want to play ball with America? What if all the warm gestures by Kim Jong-un were merely a trap set to ensnare the US president, handing him what seemed to be a remarkable win, only to later destroy it in a convenient moment, shifting the blame onto the White House?
Many global commentators were quick to pounce on the opportunity and suggest that US president or his newly appointed National Security Advisor, John Bolton (known for his hawkish stance), were really to blame.
After all – didn’t Kim Jong-un show so much good will? So why send jet fighters to South Korea when so much has been, seemingly, achieved?
Hardly any media outlets are kind to Donald Trump and his many enemies would happily take advantage of the chance to ridicule him, regardless of whether it is deserved. It would surely turn into another torrent of critique of his brash style, portraying the US president as overconfident but incompetent buffoon, who eventually ruined months of diplomatic efforts – just when peace was closer than ever.
Most importantly, however, it would strike a powerful blow against his foreign policy, possibly forcing him to soften his methods when conducting really important talks.
Like those with China.
Time is Ticking Away
Whether the summit in Singapore happens and what its result is going to be is likely to show us more about Sino-American relations than about the strength of the North Korean regime.
If Chinese take Trump’s threats seriously, they might be willing to withdraw their support for the pesky brat in Pyongyang in the hope of cutting a good deal on trade.
If they don’t, however, they are in no rush. Diplomatic ambiguity and false displays of good will can help them stave off the threat of American tariffs for many months, while giving them enough time to undermine the US president.
With US midterm elections looming, there’s a chance they will sway legislative power back to the Democratic party, possibly giving them and those of the Republicans opposing president’s protectionist maneuvers a majority whose will he would be powerless to veto.
China has nothing to lose by delaying negotiations and keeping American diplomacy occupied with North Korea.
But it does have a lot to gain.