China’s regional influence could rise after Trump-Kim summit
The day after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump tweeted that the North Korean nuclear threat was over. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, however, that the US wanted North Korea to take major nuclear-disarmament steps within the next two years – before the end of Trump’s first term in 2021. So it stands to reason that the threat is not over as of now.
The Trump-Kim meet was historic, considering their on-again-off-again relationship in the weeks running up to the summit, and their history of threatening nuclear war. For some, the meeting was also interesting, taking place between two heads of state known for eccentric ways: Trump’s antics at the recent Group of Seven summit had attracted much publicity, and he had even sent out a letter canceling the proposed meet with Kim. As for Kim, he is known to have publicly executed his defense minister, his own uncle and many others.
Trump and Kim held discussions with aides, signed a joint statement and held a press conference. Highlights of the joint statement were commitment to establish new US-North Korea relations for peace and prosperity; joint efforts to build a lasting, stable peace on the Korean Peninsula; North Korea reaffirming complete denuclearization of the peninsula in accordance with the Panmunjom Declaration of April 27, 2018; commitment to recover the remains of prisoners of war and troops missing in action and repatriating those already identified; and commitment to holding follow-up negotiations to implement outcomes of the summit.
The declarations are supposed to advance world peace. But by announcing denuclearization, is there a possibility that Kim played to Beijing’s advantage to target South Korea’s covert nuclear program?
The summit is largely hailed as a remarkable feat by Trump, meeting with a man he once threatened with “fire and fury.” But Samantha Vinograd, CNN’s national security analyst, rightly wrote: “Kim Jong-un was rewarded for pushing the envelope just far enough to get his flag flown next to the United States’, legitimizing his reign of terror.”
It cannot be discounted that Trump took this step to gain political mileage at home and international acclaim. Credit for ending the seven-decade war on Korean Peninsula could help the US, which was losing its sheen in the region, in light of rapprochement between the two Koreas, limited military options available to him, and Chinese consolidation in South China Sea. It could secure the Nobel Peace Prize for Trump and acclaim for his next presidential term.
Meanwhile, lifting of sanctions will imply greater US investments and trade with North Korea. This will also translate into benefits for China.
Trust is the next question. Iran has advised North Korea not to trust the US, for obvious reasons. But Kim is no child, and not just because he carried his own portable toilet to the summit so his stools could not be analyzed to gauge his health. The world is witness to Trump pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal (despite United Nations inspections), making US reliability suspect.
Moreover, businessman Trump has led the US into loggerheads with other members of the G7, Iran, Russia and China. The trade war with China will also affect the US, and Trump’s cancellation of the Iran deal could end up exposing and isolating America.
Trump offhandedly commented during the post-summit news conference that he was halting annual US-South Korea military drills, and wanted to remove 28,500 US troops from South Korea; contrasting the US stance that joint drills are routine, defensive and absolutely critical. This is sweet music not only to North Korea but also to China, which was working to get the US military out of South Korea.
A US pullout will send danger signals to allies such as Japan and Taiwan. Little wonder that a Taiwanese think-tank has proposed that Taiwan lease a part of an islet it controls to the US for a military base, even as the United States unveiled a US$256 million representative office (de facto embassy) in Taipei.
Trump appears convinced that China is on his side for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but China has allegedly given nuclear technology to North Korea. The possibility of China safekeeping North Korean nukes cannot be ruled out either.
It is likely that China will want the US embroiled more in West Asia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, even Iran rather than on the Korean Peninsula or the South China Sea. Ironically, China managed its consolidation in South China Sea, under both Barack Obama and Trump, mostly because of its intelligently incremental war of nerves, keeping the US unsure about how and when to respond.
After the Singapore meeting, standing alongside Kim, Trump said: “We’ll meet again. We will meet many times.” So it can be safely assumed denuclearization of North Korea, leave aside the entire peninsula, is highly complex. Whether it can be achieved before 2021 and in what measure is questionable, but at the Singapore Summit, China was the clear winner.