China will welcome US talks with North Korea to keep Kim Jong-un in power
The prospect of talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will likely be welcomed in Beijing, because they play into China’s strategic interests.
China wants to maintain the status quo and keep Kim Jung-un in power, and the talks will ensure this.
The prospect of regime change or the collapse of North Korea holds no appeal for China, which sees the country as a buffer between itself and the 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea — key to America’s projection of its power vis-a-vis China in the region.
China does not want to see tougher and more extensive sanctions that could cause North Korea to fail, as it would have to deal with the fallout of millions of refugees and the consequent spectre of US troops on its border.
That explains why China never took the ultimate step of stopping oil from flowing into North Korea, maintaining the lifeline that fuels the economy and army, and keeps the regime in place.
An arms race in the region
China has indeed enforced the toughest sanctions to date on North Korea: it has stopped textile, coal, iron ore and seafood trade with the country.
Chinese sanctions are a contributing factor to the change in Pyongyang’s tone and its recent rapprochement with South Korea, and now President Trump.
China’s sanctions on North Korea have stemmed from its desire to curb an arms race in its region. South Korea has called for more anti-aircraft missiles and even a return to strategic nuclear weapons.
As for Japan, China’s historical nemesis and biggest competitor in the region, there has been a drift to a military build up in face of the North Korean threat — a move that would impact China’s territory claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
In order to curb this potential arms race in the region, China had to send a clear message to North Korea in the form of tougher sanctions.
A nuclear state, a failed economy
The North Korean leader has in many ways been dictating the moves, not America or China.
He has been able to tell his people that he made North Korea a great power; a nuclear state that has the capacity to destroy any American city.
But Mr Kim’s strategy is driven by a necessity to revive his moribund economy — one of the poorest in the world.
For his long term survival, Mr Kim needs to provide a better standard of living to his people.
He needs aid and trade to flow back into the country to show his people he is delivering on this front.
In any future talks, Mr Kim is likely to push for tangible concessions on aid and trade if he is to enter into any dialogue about denuclearisation.
Taking the credit
China is likely to take credit for this historic breakthrough while claiming that it, rather than America, has taken the strongest actions in terms of sanctions in order to bring North Korea to the table.
Even if Mr Trump and Mr Kim have agreed to meet, the key issue remains: how to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula.
To ensure its interests are met in the longer term, China is likely to push for a return to a six-party type talks: China, Russia, Japan, the US, in addition to North and South Korea.
If the six parties participate in a final solution, the peace treaty might actually stick.