Pushpin marking on Pyongyang, North Korea map. Image: iStock

Win-win cooperation” is a central part, if not the basis, of China’s current foreign policy or its so-called “new type of international relations,” which also includes “mutual respect, fairness and justice.” The catchphrase is now advocated and used virtually in all aspects of the Asian power’s external relations – from human rights to grand economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

But, while it sounds very noble and it may be true that it brings about mutual benefits, it’s often the case that the People’s Republic wins far more than its international partners from its “win-win” strategy. This is true with Beijing’s stance vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula issue, though it doesn’t explicitly use the motto.

A key reason why the Chinese government doesn’t overtly advocate its “win-win” formula is that, as clearly stated by Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a United Nations Security Council meeting in April last year, China doesn’t see it as “a focal point in the [Korean] Peninsula issue.”

Though he said, “the key to solving the nuclear issue … does not lie in [its] hands,” he stated that China is “a close neighbor to the peninsula and well aware of its responsibilities for peace on the peninsula and stability in the wider region.” That’s why, in that statement, he put forward China’s propositions – namely the “dual-track” approach and the “suspension for suspension” proposal – and called all parties, especially the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and the United States, the two countries Beijing sees as the directly concerned parties, to consider them.

Though he said they “are objective, fair, reasonable and feasible,” such proposals, if implemented, would benefit China the most.

Beijing is committed to its “long-held goal of denuclearization” and “resolutely opposes the DPRK’s research, development and possession of nuclear weapons” because should its troublesome communist neighbor become a nuclear power, it would pose a huge security threat to China.

Wang was absolutely right to call for denuclearization through “dialogue and negotiation” because the “use of force does not resolve differences, and will only lead to bigger disasters” for not only the parties involved, but also the region and possibly the wider world. For Beijing, it would be a nightmare should that happen. The military conflict would definitely result in the collapse of the communist regime in Pyongyang, Beijing’s only treaty ally and China’s buffer, and that could cause far-reaching consequences for the Asian giant.

China is, without doubt, the biggest winner of its “suspension for suspension” proposal, which it regards as “the most reasonable, fair and practical way to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue.

In his remarks, Wang said the “proposal, which calls for the suspension of nuclear and missile activities by the DPRK and the suspension of massive military exercises by the US and the ROK [Republic of Korea] seeks to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, thus initiating the first step of the ‘dual-track’ approach,” whose aim is to “promote parallel progress in denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner.”

Yet, by advocating such an idea, China’s ultimate aim is to push for the reduction and even the termination of America’s military presence in South Korea. This is manifested by Wang’s reiteration of “China’s firm opposition to the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in the ROK,” arguing that such “a move seriously undermines the strategic security of China.”

It is no longer a secret that the Asian juggernaut has sought to replace the US as the region’s hegemon

Indeed, it is no longer a secret that the Asian juggernaut has sought to replace the US as the region’s hegemon. It is difficult for Beijing to achieve that if Washington still stations some 30,000 American troops and advanced weapons, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, on the Korean Peninsula.

When Wang advanced China’s proposals, as he himself noted, some countries had doubts about them. In fact, until recently, many, and especially the US, still thought they were unacceptable. However, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sudden visit to China this week, they are no longer absolutely impossible and Beijing and Wang, who was recently promoted to state councilor, must be happy and confident about them.

In talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the North Korean leader was quoted by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, as saying he was “committed to denuclearization on the peninsula” and “the issue of denuclearization … can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”

Kim’s words exactly summarized what China has championed.

Before his secret trip, there were suggestions that China was a peripheral player and Kim could even strike a deal with the South and especially the US at the expense of China in his meeting with his southern counterpart, Moon Jae In, and the announced summit with US President Donald Trump.

But all of this is now implausible. Instead, if he is true to his words, Kim will go to the meeting with Moon on April 27, and likely have an unprecedented encounter with the American president before May, with the Chinese proposals in mind.

That is already a victory for Beijing. Should he go on to achieve a deal based on those propositions, that would be not only a “win-win” result but many “win-win” outcomes for China.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that Beijing accorded him a warm and grandiose reception. Though it was an “unofficial visit,” the young dictator, who disregarded Xi and China on many occasions last year, was treated in the same manner as Trump during his “state visit-plus” last year. In some ways, Kim was treated more grandly than Trump.

During the two-day trip, China afforded him all of the honors bestowed on world leaders, including a formal welcoming ceremony, a review of troops at the Great Hall of the People and a banquet.

Besides Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-President Wang Qishan and Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, also met him. In addition to Xi, Li and Wang, five other members of China’s 25-strong politburo and Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended the activities reserved for Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju.

That said, given the North’s past failures to keep its promises and China’s present actions and its long-term ambitions, of which the Trump administration is very wary and critical, it’s very unlikely that South Korea and, especially the US, will agree to withdraw America’s military personnel and hardware from the Korean Peninsula.

For the US, such a move would signal the end of its long presence and prominence in the region and hand China, which Washington now regards as America’s top security concern, a total victory.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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