President Xi will have been watching the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un with bated breath, because their meeting is vital for the future of Chinese power.
China and North Korea have enjoyed close ties since the dawn of Asian communism. Mao’s own son died on the frontlines of the Korean War, fighting for North Korea. And while North Korea has had sanctions applied to it for decades, China has steadfastly provided support – both economic and strategic. Only a small part of this was ideological.
As China opened and reformed, the Kim brand of Communism became less palatable to Beijing and not worth fighting for. Regardless, China needs North Korea, because it serves as a physical buffer against American-allied Asia: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan. North Korea could act as a useful satellite state, supporting China’s regional control, if only it would liberalise and prosper. For many years, China has also been concerned about the prospect of North Korean refugees. If the regime were toppled, the risk is that there might be a huge influx of people from North Korea into China. Today, that risk looks less likely.
You can be sure that Xi and his advisors will be closely watching the TV as the Singapore Summit takes place. Beijing hopes that Trump will accept Kim into the international community – and it will be right behind Kim in providing strategic support if this does happen.
When Kim visited Xi in Beijing last month, Kim said that he would get rid of his nuclear toys if ‘certain parties’ withdrew their military presence from Asia. This is a pointed reference to America, whose weapons and military defend South Korea. The US Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system has recently been installed in South Korea. It is a short-range missile system that can reach China.
So Kim’s goal in these negotiations is clear and in return he will dangle the prospect of denuclearisation in front of Trump. China, meanwhile, will sit in the shadows and pray that Kim is successful. The withdrawal of US military force from Asia is good news for China. With its expanding near abroad in the South and East China seas, its continued interest in (re)unifying Taiwan, and the goal of preserving North Korea, China would like to be the strongest military force in the area.
For now, it seems that Kim has shown the world’s ‘adults’ that the big baby of Pyongyang isn’t as childish as they thought. He has achieved something neither his father or grandfather ever managed to – and his meeting with Trump will have legitimised his position in North Korea. Kim has already demonstrated his deftness at diplomacy in recent months. He was all smiles and charm as he met the South Korean President, yet was simultaneously arranging meetings with Putin, Assad and Xi to establish his options. He has also shown that he can play at the same sort of brinkmanship that Trump relies on.
But there is a possibility – a small one, granted – of something less desirable happening. As Communist states have found in the last century, playing with western nations and liberal ideas can spiral out of control. The USSR met its end in this way, and for Communist China, well, it’s a good thing tanks are good at quelling rebellion. If Korean reunification is the end point of warming relations between Pyongyang and Washington, you can be sure that China will be scuppering plans somewhere along the way, in order to help Kim keep control of the country.