Following his first meeting with Trump in April 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his willingness to work with the United States to rein in its increasingly aggressive neighbor North Korea, amid rapid progress of Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program.
When Trump traded harsh rhetoric with Kim Jong Un last summer, by threatening to counter any North Korean attack with "fire and fury," the possibility of a warfare on the Korean peninsula looked to be imminent. To deescalate tensions and avoid a military conflict at its doorsteps, China voted in support of a number of more strict United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, targeting North Korea’s possible revenues for developing its nuclear weapons.
As China stepped up its implementation of economic sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang expressed its dissatisfaction by ignoring Beijing’s feelings when conducting a series of ballistic missile tests, some of which took place on the same day when major international events were held in China.
After Kim Jong Un initiated an apparent policy U-turn since his New Year’s day speech, North Korea looked to be willing to repair relations with both South Korea and the United States. Following a visit of a special South Korean envoy to Pyongyang, Kim agreed to hold meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April and delivered a message to Trump through South Korea. As North Korea promised to commit to denuclearization, Trump also agreed to meet with Kim in May, which will become the first official meeting between leaders of the two nations.
"Under Trump’s persuasion, pressure and deception, China stepped up the economic sanctions 6-7 times against North Korea last year. China has almost depleted all possible sanction measures against North Korea. One of the most important consequences of such measures was Pyongyang’s growing hostility against China," Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at the Renmin University in Beijing, told Sputnik.
After avoiding a possible war on the Korean peninsula, China may have to face the reality of being left out of future peace talks, Shi suggested.
"The dramatic development on the Korean peninsula, following Kim Jong Un’s wild bet since the beginning of the year, has in fact excluded China. Despite the chances of a military conflict on the Korean peninsula reducing significantly, China was, in reality, left out of the current affairs related to the nuclear crisis. Such a situation is unlikely to change in the near future, because of North Korea’s resentment against China," he said.
The Beijing-based expert pointed out that hostility from North Korea could become a challenge for China’s foreign policy.
"The only way for Beijing to improve its relations with Pyongyang is to relax economic sanctions, which is unlikely to happen because of existing United Nations Security Council resolutions. Kim Jong Un has tried to improve relations with both South Korea and the United States. Under such a scenario, he doesn’t need to rely on China any longer. This has become a difficult problem for China’s foreign policy," Shi said.
North Korea has always targeted the United States when developing its nuclear arsenal. Through a series of missile tests last year, Pyongyang tried to demonstrate it has obtained the capability to strike the entire territory of the United States with its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
"The mid-range ballistic missiles North Korea has obtained could be enough to serve the deterrence purposes. As a result, North Korea could agree to denuclearize partially through peace talks. As long as Pyongyang gets rid of its ICBMs, the United States would not feel as threatened," he said.
The Chinese expert argued that it is impossible for China to push North Korea to denuclearize completely.
"China has demanded North Korea to denuclearize for over 15 years without reaching our goal. Is it possible for us to get Pyongyang give up all of its nuclear weapons? If North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the United States improve, it does not need to rely on China for its economic needs. If the United States accepts [a partially denuclearized North Korea], China may also have to tolerate such a scenario," Shi said.
No Pro-Us North Korea
The news of a possible meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un triggered a heated debate among Chinese scholars who follow the North Korea nuclear crisis. A number of nationalistic Chinese academics went as far as voicing concerns that North Korea could become pro-US through peace talks, which would hurt China’s strategic interests.
Other Chinese scholars dismissed such claims, arguing that the United States would not accept North Korea to keep part of its nuclear arsenal for the purpose of containing China.
"I believe the mainstream point of view in China, which is close to the Chinese government’s official position, is that the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula could not be resolved all at once. There’s little hope for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons completely in the short term. If US-North Korea peace talks can lead to the freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, it fits China’s interests as well. But in the eyes of those Chinese experts with a strong Cold War mentality, this situation has become the United States gave up the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization for the sake of countering China’s rise," Zhao Tong, a fellow at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told Sputnik.
The Chinese expert explained that the United States views North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a much bigger and more imminent security threat compared to possible rivalry against China.
The expert added that if North Korea improves its relations with the United States through peace talks, it would be easy for Beijing to repair relations with Pyongyang as China does not have to face international pressure to implement harsh economic sanctions anymore.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.