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In late March, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who had not stepped foot outside the hermit kingdom since taking power in 2011, traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time. The encounter came amid two decades of declining relations between North Korea and China, with its worst period yet under Xi—only six high-level bilateral exchanges had taken place over the past six years, compared to 54 during the presidency of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
As I previously argued in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Beijing had grown wary of Kim’s provocations and was “no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival.” It was remarkable, then, that Xi had extended the invitation to Kim. Has there been a sudden thaw in diplomatic relations? And if so, what does this apparent reversal signify?
On the surface, Xi appears driven by a desire for improved Sino–North Korean relations. During the Xi-Kim meeting, the Chinese media portrayed their two countries as ideological comrades, emphasizing their common interest in finding a peaceful solution to the security challenges on the peninsula and publishing photos of the two leaders sharing a warm embrace. But although the summit signals Beijing’s interest in pursuing productive relations with Pyongyang, Xi’s decision to meet with Kim represents less of a strategic shift than appearances might suggest. China is still not wedded to North Korea’s survival, and the countries’ “alliance” continues to be only in name. For Beijing, the ultimate goal of the meeting was not to patch up the relationship with Pyongyang but to shape the direction of upcoming U.S.–North Korean talks and to ensure that any outcome favors Chinese interests over those of the United States.
NEW ENVIRONMENT, NEW STRATEGY
Over the past few years, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang had deteriorated to the point where Chinese strategists and even military officers were suggesting that China might not take North Korea’s side in the event of a conflict on the peninsula. China had a lot to be upset about. Kim blatantly ignored its demands to refrain from provocative activities, conducting 86 missile tests and four nuclear tests since assuming power. Demonstrating a complete disregard for China’s interests, Kim had all of his nuclear tests conducted at the Punggye-ri site, about 100 miles from the Chinese border, which caused significant consternation in Beijing about nuclear fallout. Not only that, but Kim had a habit of conducting these tests during moments of significance for Beijing, such as during Xi’s May 2017 One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing, and, a few months later, during the BRICs summit in Xiamen. Xi may have felt personally disrespected by these tests, as it became obvious to the world that the timing of North Korea’s nuclear testing was no coincidence.
Meanwhile, both the increases in U.S. military and economic pressure against North Korea under the Trump administration and the heated rhetorical exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington caused China to lose hope in the possibility of a diplomatic solution. This, coupled with its deteriorating relationship with Pyongyang, encouraged China to begin preparing more seriously for military contingencies, including by conducting relevant military exercises and making force posture adjustments. But a number of major developments over the past three months likely suggested to Beijing that a new opportunity to shape the situation on the peninsula through diplomacy had emerged. In February, North Korea sent a delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics, opening a pathway to talks with South Korea and reducing tensions in inter-Korean relations. In March, President Donald Trump announced that he would be willing to hold a summit with Kim by the end of May, which would make him the first sitting president to meet face to face with the leader of North Korea. Once diplomacy became an option once more, it made sense for Xi to reach out to Kim. Not only would doing so allow China to exert its influence in the upcoming U.S.–North Korean talks, it would burnish China’s self-image as a regional power and mediator, winning Xi points at home and earning China a seat at the negotiating table. Indeed, Xi reached out to brief Trump on Kim’s visit, which suggests that Xi is already preparing to assume the role of a mediator.
WHAT IS CHINA’S MAIN GOAL?
Although China may have shifted its strategy to prioritize diplomacy over military solutions, its goals have not changed. Its North Korea policy is primarily motivated by the desire to counter U.S. power in the region and increase Chinese influence on the peninsula. In wartime, this would involve intervening militarily and extensively in North Korea in order to gain control of territory and the majority of North Korean nuclear weapons. This would place Beijing in a strong position to ensure that a peace deal, which would ultimately involve reunification between North and South Korea, meets its demands. Such a deal could include not only the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but potentially also the abrogation of the U.S.–South Korean defense treaty.
As for the U.S.–North Korean summit, China’s official goal is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This sounds promising, but Beijing will likely ask Washington for a number of concessions in return. Beijing could demand that the United States soothe North Korea’s security concerns by ceasing U.S.–South Korean military exercises, reducing the U.S. military presence in South Korea and normalizing relations with Pyongyang. The Chinese media stresses that Beijing will remain steadfast in protecting its own interests. This means keeping in mind that the Chinese concept of denuclearization falls more in line with that of North Korea’s: a long-term goal that will be achieved gradually and conditionally as the United States decreases the threat it poses to North Korea (and by extension, to China). In other words, the United States would have to make significant compromises to get Pyongyang to denuclearize, ones that are unlikely to sit well with Trump.
If the United States refuses to make these concessions, it is still in China’s interest to keep any U.S.–North Korean negotiations alive for as long as possible—or at least until a less hawkish administration takes over the White House. A stalemate or a breakdown in talks could be used as a pretext for Washington to launch preemptive strikes. Even if talks resulted in an agreement, a U.S. or North Korean violation of that agreement would weaken the position of moderates in Washington who advocate for diplomacy and deterrence. This could lead to renewed calls for military strikes. To keep talks alive, even informally, Beijing may seek to keep Kim from conducting nuclear tests while convincing the United States to ease sanctions and offer economic incentives to keep Kim at the table.
The most important takeaway from the Xi-Kim summit is that China is looking out for its own interests, and not those of North Korea, whether it’s on a potential battlefield or at the negotiating table. Should Beijing take on the role of mediator during the U.S.–North Korean negotiations, it would be in a better position to persuade the United States to cede influence on the peninsula. That would be the price Washington would have to pay to gain Chinese assistance in achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. As I have previously argued, however, the risk of refusing Chinese assistance is that if diplomacy breaks down, tensions may escalate into war. Diplomacy may come at a price, but it beats the alternative.