America and China duel for influence over North Korea

America and China duel for influence over North Korea
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North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un met with Chinese president Xi Jinping last week for the first time since coming to power in 2011. Such a meeting between the two leaders would normally be not be surprising since China and North Korea are allies. But these are not normal times.

The meeting between Kim and Xi took many experts by surprise because the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing has been tense for some time. Since Kim came to power, there have been fewer high-level exchanges between Chinese and North Korean officials, and reports indicate that bilateral trade significantly decreased in recent months.

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Reportedly, disagreements over North Korean missile and nuclear tests, stepped up Chinese enforcement of United Nations sanctions, and personality differences between Kim and Xi all contributed to the strained relations between the two allies. Xi was purportedly frustrated in the past with the brazen and unpredictable behavior of the young North Korean leader and his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons. Conversely, Kim has resented China’s heavy-handed attempts to use their alliance relationship to assert its economic and political influence over Pyongyang.

After the sudden meeting between the two leaders, however, the China-North Korea relationship appears to be on the mend. The unexpected “unofficial visit” was likely precipitated by a combination of rapidly developing events on and around the Korean Peninsula and domestic imperatives in both countries. On the North Korean side, Kim seems to be carefully pursuing a step-by-step sequence of engagement with the South Koreans, the Americans, and now the Chinese.

North Korea’s outreach to China is likely explained by several things. Kim seems to have been emboldened by rapid technological advances made in his nuclear weapons program over the last year and by the success of his diplomatic outreach to South Korea in the last few months. His confidence in these two new developments would have made it easier for him to extend a diplomatic hand to both Washington and Beijing given the perceived bargaining leverage.

The biting effect of sanctions on the North Korean economy, and a need to find relief from the “maximum pressure” campaign spearheaded by the United States, also likely played a part in Kim’s calculus. Moreover, a growing rift between the United States and China on trade issues would have given Kim an opportunity to pit the two national powers against each other for the benefit of North Korea. Lastly, Kim would have also realized that a meeting with Xi before May was an important insurance card to have in his pocket in case summit negotiations with the United States fail.

On the Chinese side, Xi’s consolidation of domestic power after a National People’s Congress meeting in March likely provided him with an opportunity to focus more on North Korea policy. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE’s unexpected and sudden acceptance of a proposed meeting with Kim also seems to have prompted the Chinese to move quickly to arrange a meeting between Kim and Xi before the U.S.-North Korea summit.

The Chinese are well aware of the significance of a meeting between Trump and Kim, as it is the first time a sitting American president will meet with a North Korean leader, and they would be extremely worried about being cut out of any bilateral deal. While publicly supportive of dialogue, the Chinese would be concerned about losing influence over the Korean Peninsula and ceding control to other countries. The meeting between Kim and Xi was a reminder to the world of China’s role in the region and on the issue of denuclearization.

The question going forward is how much will the relationship between China and North Korea impact the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and discussions on denuclearization? Through bilateral consultations, China will certainly try and assert some influence over the inter-Korean summit scheduled for April 27 and the expected U.S.-North Korea summit in May. It is still too early to say what North Korea’s exact demands and concessions will be in the negotiations and how much Chinese intervention will influence the outcome.

It is not even clear if North Korea intends to negotiate the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program. What is clear, however, is that decisions made in Washington and Beijing will certainly impact China’s willingness to cooperate with the United States in the future. If the relationship between China and America deteriorates further due to trade friction, Xi may decide to lift the economic and political pressure on North Korea.

The same could be said of relations with U.S. allies. If Trump manages to alienate not just China, but also South Korea and Japan on issues such as trade and defense costs burden-sharing, then cooperation on North Korea policy will be a pipedream and a continuous uphill battle in the months and years to come. The administration would be wise to remember this not just in the formulation of plans for the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit, but in the policymaking process for other issues and countries in the region as well.

Lisa Collins is a fellow in the office of the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This publication represents the personal views of the author and not those of her organization.