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China seeks to keep Trump-Kim show on the road

Beijing gains from dragging out talks, with US bogged down and North Korea stable

| China
It is in China's interest to keep the U.S.-North Korea summit alive and endorse Kim Jong-un's position for phased denuclearization.   © Reuters

President Donald Trump's sudden cancellation of his planned meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and his subsequent hints that he might, after all, change his mind again must rank among the most bizarre events in diplomatic history. But for China, the antics of Trump and Kim are no laughing matter. The stakes are simply too high for President Xi Jinping to sit by and watch this diplomatic farce turn into a geopolitical tragedy.

On the surface, it may be tempting to see the cancellation of the summit as a gain for Beijing. Indeed, Trump himself blamed China, albeit without offering any evidence, for stiffening Kim's back and thus sabotaging the summit (and ruining his chances for getting a Nobel Peace Prize). Those subscribing to this view believe that China will lose its influence and strategic equity in North Korea if Trump and Kim succeed in striking a denuclearization deal that could, in the long run, set Pyongyang free from Beijing's grip.

However, this interpretation misses a crucial point. For Beijing, the optimal outcome of a Trump-Kim summit is an ambiguous agreement that reduces short-term tensions but drags out the "denuclearization" process endlessly and inconclusively. This would, for an extended period, freeze Kim's nuclear and missile tests and forestall any American preemptive attack on North Korea. To be sure, China is worried that, in desperation, Kim may negotiate away the nuclear patrimony left to him by his grandfather and father, in return for guaranteed security and economic aid. But Beijing treats such an outcome as extremely unlikely because Kim's nuclear arsenal is his only guarantee for survival and American credibility has been irreparably damaged by Trump's recent actions, such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Based on these critical assumptions, the smartest move for China is to endorse Kim's diplomatic gamble and back his negotiating position (denuclearization through phased and synchronized measures by both sides). Of course, such support must have reassured Kim, who subsequently rejected the Trump administration's demand that North Korea accept the "Libyan model" of nuclear disarmament. This would amount to total and unconditional surrender on the lines of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who abandoned his nuclear programme in return for economic aid only to be overthrown and killed by Western-backed rebels a few years later.

The declaration by Pyongyang that it would not follow the "Libyan model" was a rude awakening for Trump and, on top of Pyongyang shrill insults, must have prompted him to dictate his angry letter to Kim announcing the cancellation of the summit.

Like everyone else, Beijing was caught by total surprise. Should Trump stick to his earlier announcement that he would not meet Kim, not only would military tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang resumes its nuclear and missile tests, but also U.S.-China relations could suffer further collateral damage.

Smarting from a self-inflicted diplomatic setback and a huge blow to his ego, Trump could take out his anger on China because he holds Beijing responsible for this debacle. In retaliation, he could end the cease-fire in the U.S.-China trade war and confront China far more aggressively on issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.

To avert such an unwelcome scenario, Beijing needs to do what it can to revive the Trump-Kim summit. Judging by Pyongyang's conciliatory rhetoric following Trump's abrupt cancelation, it is reasonable to suspect that China may have nudged North Korea to give Trump some face and leave the door open.

At the moment, signs are promising that Trump, for whatever reason, is tempted to change his mind and return to the negotiating table with Kim. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea also appears to be doing all he can to facilitate such a summit.

Despite Moon's reassurance that Kim is committed to the "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," it is hard to imagine that Kim's negotiation position has fundamentally changed. What is almost certain to change is North Korea's rhetoric. After its blustering rhetoric incurred Trump's wrath and caused the apparent cancelation of the summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, Kim is more likely to behave with more rhetorical restraint should Trump go through with reversing himself.

Even though a resuscitated Trump-Kim summit may, at best, produce an inconclusive outcome that does not address the danger posed by North Korea's nuclear arsenal, it is a second-best solution for all those concerned.

Kim obviously hopes that "phased and synchronized measures" would allow him to trade the freezing of tests and dismantling of the non-essential parts of his nuclear program for sanctions relief and aid. Moon counts on this drawn-out process to maintain the fragile peace on the Korean peninsula. As for Trump, he would be faced with a difficult choice. His advisers are strongly opposed to falling into a potential trap. The U.S. could find itself negotiating endlessly with a regime that has no intention of giving up its nuclear arsenal. They would remind Trump that Washington and Pyongyang have been down the same path at least twice before and it would be foolish to pay for the same horse again. But the prospect of a "quick" diplomatic win that could be sold as a historic breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize may be too delicious to resist for Trump.

In the event that Trump opts to meet with Kim after all, Beijing will likely breathe a sigh of relief. To be sure, China will be watchful for signs of betrayal by Kim. But the formula of negotiation -- phased and synchronized measures by both sides -- ensures that the process will take a long time and eventually fail to produce the "complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization" demanded by the U.S. If the U.S.-North Korea negotiations fizzle, China will not be necessarily worse off than not having them at all. North Korea will remain its client state while Beijing has gained more precious time.

China's real worry is Trump's rejection of North Korea's formula for negotiation. Trump may be persuaded by his advisers not to fall into Kim's trap. He may also be convinced that a summit with an inconclusive outcome will not be enough to earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. Should Trump decide to stay in Washington rather than fly 15,000 kilometers to meet a dictator less than half of his age, everyone is back to square one.

That would surely disappoint the Chinese, but this is not necessarily the end of the world. Beijing will simply revert to a stability-maintenance mode. On the one hand, it will funnel enough covert aid to North Korea to keep it afloat in return for some form of restraint. On the other hand, China will work with South Korea and even Japan to dissuade Trump from taking potentially disastrous military actions against the Kim regime.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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