Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
Xi Jinping has become China's president for life after a clause restricting presidential terms is removed from the Chinese constitution. Photo: Reuters

As of March 17, it remains unclear whether – and if so, when and where – the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will take place. Yet, should the unprecedented meeting be held and Washington and Pyongyang reach a deal, it could be a huge blow for China and especially its leader, Xi Jinping.

Like many other countries around the world, China welcomed the stunning news broken by South Korea’s top national security adviser, Chung Eui-Yongon, on March 8 that the American president would meet the North Korean leader in person by May.

Beijing also quickly claimed credit for its “constructive” role in recent positive developments on the Korean Peninsula.

Xinhua reported that, in a phone call with Xi on March 9, Trump said his Chinese counterpart “is right to insist on a dialogue between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

According to China’s official news agency, Trump also added that America “highly appreciates and values China’s significant role in resolving the Korean Peninsula issue and is willing to strengthen communication and coordination with China over the issue.”

But the White House’s read-out of their phone conversation as well as US Vice President Mike Pence’s statement on North Korea issued on the same day mentioned none of these.

In a tweet about his call with Xi on March 10, in which he revealed his Chinese counterpart told him “he appreciates that the US is working to solve the problem diplomatically rather than going with the ominous alternative,” Trump simply commented that “China continues to be helpful!”

Judging by all this, it’s apparent that, publicly, the Trump White House doesn’t highly appreciate and value China’s significant role in the matter as Beijing has claimed.

An op-ed in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s flagship paper, on March 12, boasted that the Trump-Xi phone exchange “also tells the world … that China’s constructive proposals and role on the issue are recognized and appreciated by all parties concerned.”

The piece went on to claim: “Signs of a thaw on the Korean Peninsula are closely related to China’s suspension-for-suspension proposal,” which “calls for the DPRK to suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale US-ROK [Republic of Korea] military exercises.”

In a press conference on March 8, hours before the Trump-Kim face-to-face encounter was announced, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had already made that claim, stating that the recent remarkable developments on the peninsula proved that Beijing’s proposal “was the right prescription for the [North Korea] problem.”

However, though it’s now seeking to resolve the matter diplomatically rather than opting for an “ominous alternative,” the Trump administration still asserts that its tough posture is the reason behind Pyongyang’s unexpected overture.

Pence’s statement on North Korea said, “North Korea’s desire to meet to discuss denuclearization – while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing – is evidence that President Trump’s strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working.

“The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the [US] making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime.”

In his shock announcement about the Trump-Kim summit, Chung also said, he had “explained to President Trump his leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.”

Although it’s still early to credit the American president for Pyongyang’s astonishing shift, if Kim Jong-un sits down with Trump and strikes a deal with him, Trump’s tough stance is, without doubt, a crucial contributing factor.

Unlike his predecessors, the businessman-turned-president was very harsh toward Pyongyang and successfully forced many countries, including China, through the United Nations, to impose severe sanctions on the hermit country.

The latest and toughest US-led sanctions were unanimously voted through by the 15 members of the UN Security Council, obviously including China, in December 2017. They included measures to reduce North Korea’s petrol imports by 90%. These measures were so severe that Pyongyang called them an “act of war.”

Never before Trump entered the White House had China, which accounts for about 90% of the North’s trade, agreed to such stern sanctions on its communist neighbor

Never before Trump entered the White House had China, which accounts for about 90% of the North’s trade, agreed to such stern sanctions on its communist neighbor.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman on March 9 also admitted that “China has been implementing the DPRK-related resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council in a comprehensive and strict manner and we have paid a huge price for that.”

In many ways, such an admission is very true. Though it agreed with the US-led punitive sanctions on North Korea, China didn’t get any major concessions from the Trump administration. Quite the opposite, over recent months, Washington has pursued a tougher posture toward Beijing on trade and many other vital issues.

Writing in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Hong Seok-Hyun, the owner of JoongAng Holdings, South Korea’s largest media group, said: “The hostility Pyongyang feels toward Beijing for conceding to international pressure and supporting UN sanctions is beyond our imagination.”

Hong, who was South Korean ambassador to the US in 2005 and served as President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy to America last year, also claimed that North Korea’s anti-China sentiment is “deeply rooted.”

North Korea’s deep and long-lasting animosity toward its giant neighbor is likewise maintained by Jamil Anderlini, the Financial Times’s Asia editor, who visited the isolated country in 2016.

Whether, and if so, to what extent, Beijing’s unprecedented support of US-led sanctions on the North and the latter’s deep-rooted acrimony toward its giant neighbor contributed to Pyongyang’s recent sudden overture toward the South and especially the US are open to debate.

Yet, judging by what has happened so far, it can be said that China has not “played a unique and indispensable role in solving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue” as hailed by the op-ed in the People’s Daily. This is true at least from the Trump government’s perspective.

Since he agreed to meet Kim Jong-un, neither Trump nor his administration overtly praised Beijing’s “significant” or “indispensable” role. His comment that “China continues to be helpful”  sounds as if, even stresses that, the Asian power has only played a supportive or secondary role.

If the Trump-Kim summit, the first between a sitting US president and a North Korea leader, does take place, especially outside China, it will confirm Beijing’s sidelining. Its marginalization could be a huge setback for the country.

China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the world’s second-biggest economy, is not only the North’s largest trading partner and closest neighbor. It was also North Korea’s main defender during the 1950-1953 Korea War and throughout the Cold War and remains, officially, Pyongyang’s only ally – and vice versa.

What’s more, the Trump-Kim encounter is not purely about the US-DPRK relations and the Korean Peninsula. It’s also about China and the wider region’s security. As it’s often said, out of sight could lead to out of mind and out of consideration.

In fact, the view that Pyongyang could or should strike a deal or even make an alliance with Washington at the expense of Beijing has been suggested.

In its reaction to the news about the Trump-Kim upcoming meeting, which it described as “another explosive breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula situation,” the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, editorialized that “Chinese people should stay calm and remain poised, and avoid the mentality that China is being marginalized.” This advice reveals that there exists a concern among some Chinese that their country may be bypassed.

China’s marginalization doesn’t bode well for Xi, the country’s “core” leader or “chairman of everything” and Xi’s propagandists.

Xi is portrayed by Chinese state media and officials as “a world leader,” who, since becoming China’s leader in 2012, has visited 57 countries and received more than 110 foreign heads of state, and those “important visits and meetings go a long way towards … enhancing China’s profile and influence, and facilitating the solution of many global problems.”

But what has happened on the Korean Peninsula apparently points to the contrary.

Though Xi has traveled the world, he hasn’t visited its closest neighbor and communist ally. Kim Jong-un even reportedly refused to receive Xi’s visiting special envoy, who carried his letter to Pyongyang last year.

Indeed, were Xi a world leader, who, through his numerous foreign trips, could facilitate “the solution of many global problems,” Kim definitely would see him before meeting Trump and the South Korean president.

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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