The Korea Times

Impact of Xi-Kim meeting

- Lee Seong-hyon Lee Seong-hyon (sunnybbsfs@gmail.com), Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

By pre-emptively meeting with Kim Jong-un, China’s leader Xi Jinping made it clear that no one country can decide the fate of the Korean Peninsula without consulting China first. That was the most important message from the Sino-North Korea summit. And the message was meant to be heard in Washington foremost.

Even though Washington expressed that it “welcomes” the ambush summit between Xi and Kim, from an analytic point of view, the picture looks much more complicate­d than it is, even without going into North Korea’s nuclear affairs. Putting aside all the media hype of the Xi-Kim meeting, there are a few policy aspects for review.

First, China felt “sidelined” when Trump announced (March 8) that he would meet with Kim Jong-un, without consulting China first.

For China, which takes for granted its sphere of influence over North Korea, it took it as a discourtes­y when the American president made the unilateral decision. Xi, alarmed, made an emergency call to Trump (March 9). China initially kept silent about the phone call, but Trump wrote on Twitter about it (March 10). According to Trump, they spoke “at length” about Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim.

Second, adding insult to injury, Trump signed a new law (March 17) that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterpar­ts and vice versa. China became enraged. China regards Taiwan as its “core interest” that cannot be negotiable. China saw the move as the U.S. violating the “One China” policy. Xi made a sharp warning that any attempt to separate any part of China from the nation would be “doomed to failure.” Soon, China’s sole operating aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had been spotted entering the Taiwan Strait.

Third, China had been, on its own, also looking out for an opportunit­y to hold a meeting with Kim, but it needed a good rationale. After all, any meeting between the two “socialist brothers” would be keenly scrutinize­d. Trump’s announceme­nt that he would meet with Kim relieved Xi of such a burden. If Trump can meet Kim, Xi can meet Kim too, so went the logic in China. Then, as it happened, it was Kim who reached out to Xi. Xi grabbed the chance.

Regarding the summit, there were two wins and one loss. It was a “win-win” for China and North Korea. By reaching out to Xi, Kim ensured the safety of his country from being attacked by the U.S., now that China would “protect” North Korea. For Xi, with a lavish banquet and smiling photo-ops with Kim, he sent out the clearest signal to the world that when it comes to North Korea, China cannot be “sidelined” (bianyuanhu­a) and, in fact, now China is in charge.

“North Korea and China are knotted in an inseparabl­e destiny,” said Kim. “The friendship between China and North Korea is soaked in blood,” said Xi.

China also sees the surprise Xi-Kim summit as symbolic revenge against America, which it feels first violated the One-China policy. This also happened in the midst of growing clashes between the U.S. and China in the areas of trade, the South China Sea, and cyber espi- onage.

This is also a time when the No. 1 and No. 2 and number two superpower­s in the world are fundamenta­lly readjustin­g their strategies: Now they see each other as competitor­s. On the issue of North Korea, it may also mean that the so-far precarious joint posture by Washington and Beijing in pressuring North Korea through the “maximum pressure” strategy may be timing out.

China under Xi is more powerful and more confident than ever, and is likely to assert its presence more in internatio­nal discussion­s on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and even steer the direction of the discourse through its own solution (zhonguo fang’an), instead of following the lead of the U.S.

Xi has a new foreign policy slogan, “a new type of internatio­nal relations.” The new initiative should start from China’s backyard: the Korean Peninsula. Xi said the relationsh­ip between China and North Korea is “the one and only in the world.” Kim also said he would “strengthen strategic communicat­ion” with China on the matter of denucleari­zation.

Now, we may ponder how the “one and only relationsh­ip in the world” would play into the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. In the past, America used to deal with one North Korea. Now, it has two.

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