Sunday, May 13, 2018

Xi Jinping and the U.S.-North Korea Negotiations

My strenuous efforts notwithstanding, few people seem to understand that the breakthrough between Kim Jong-un and President Trump is being orchestrated by Chinese president Xi Jinping. By the terms of the standard American narrative, Trump applied maximum pressure and Kim buckled. By my version, Trump made a deal with Xi. The Chinese president would reign in his obstreperous charge and Trump would give him something in exchange. What, we know not. And least, not yet.

But, clearly, Trump has showered Xi with praise in his tweets… honor that he confers on very few mere mortals. And he called Xi a true gentleman, term that any Confucian will recognize as a very high honor indeed. The basis for Confucian virtue is trustworthiness, the fact of keeping one’s word. Apparently, Xi gave Trump his word and has kept it. Now, we will eventually see what Trump offered in return.

Jane Perlez reports on the state of the game this morning in the Times. Among other insights, she emphasizes the importance of the relationship between Trump and Xi:

Chinese experts said Beijing did not plan to flout the sanctions openly at this point. However, China only reluctantly signed onto the sanctions last year, and largely at the behest of Mr. Trump, who frequently praised it for punishing the North.

Under the sanctions, China has cut exports to the North of refined energy products and stopped importing seafood, coal and also North Korean laborers, all important sources of foreign exchange for the Kim regime.

To understand the negotiations, Perlez explains, you need to know what is happening on the border between North Korea and China. She understands, as few have, the extent of Chinese influence on the process. Evidently, the Chinese have been playing down their influence... in order to ensure that Kim does not lose face.

Perlez reports on what she saw:

Along the Chinese border with North Korea, the evidence of Beijing’s leverage in the coming talks between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is everywhere.

Footage of China’s president, Xi Jinping, hosting Mr. Kim this week plays in a loop on a big outdoor screen here in the city of Dandong, and residents are eager for cross-border trade to resume as sanctions on North Korea are eased. Traders say they are putting in advance orders for coal from North Korean suppliers. Some exporters are already smuggling goods across the border.

Perlez tells us that Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure would have been empty rhetoric if China had not been enforcing economic sanctions. The Wall Street Journal reported on the issue before. I duly noted it on the blog. Here is Perlez:

The Trump administration insists it will maintain its campaign of “maximum pressure” on the North until Mr. Kim has shown “substantial dismantlement” of his nuclear arsenal. But the buoyant mood in Dandong is a reminder that China, as North Korea’s main trade partner, can decide how strictly to enforce the international sanctions against it.

Beijing has already positioned itself as a critical player that can shape the outcome of the talks, which Mr. Trump said will take place June 12 in Singapore. The reclusive Mr. Kim has traveled twice in the past two months to China to consult with Mr. Xi, notably in each case just before hosting a visit by Mike Pompeo, the new American secretary of state.

Surely, Kim needs China’s support. After all, if Kim fears the consequences of denuclearization—think Col. Qaddhafi—he will need assurances provided by a powerful ally:

The message both times was clear: Mr. Kim wants China’s support for his approach to nuclear disarmament — a gradual, action-for-action process in which the North is rewarded for each move it takes toward denuclearization.

In his meeting with Mr. Kim this week, though, Mr. Xi endorsed “phased and synchronous measures” that would “eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.”

Note also that Xi prefers a gradualist approach to ending the conflict between the two Koreas. Of course, North Korea's economic development is more important than a mere peace treaty. 

If the Trump administration is looking for a grand finale treaty in Singapore next month, it will be disappointed. One suspects that a Mike Pompeo is neither naïve nor uninformed about the process.

China has many reasons to believe it will come out ahead in the coming talks.

For one thing, its leverage over sanctions enforcement means its view on the main issues — the method and pace of denuclearization — will carry weight with both North Korea and the United States. Beyond that, it sees the prospect of progress toward a longstanding security goal: the withdrawal of United States troops from the Korean Peninsula.

As I have pointed out, Xi has probably offered Kim the chance to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping. The economic revival of the North will certainly be one of the most important aspects of the current rapprochement:
During the Dalian meeting this week between Mr. Xi and Mr. Kim, the Chinese heaped praise on Mr. Kim for declaring that North Korea would now concentrate on developing its economy, where an income of $200 a month is considered upper middle class, and a Japanese bicycle is regarded as a luxury item.

Increasing numbers of North Korean businessmen have begun returning to Dandong in the last few weeks, since Mr. Kim’s first visit to China at the end of March.


Sam L. said...

Trump is an ignorant blowhard...according to Democrats. May they never learn!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is clear that none of this could be happening without clear signalling to Kim from the Chinese. What, indeed, has been the exchange, and would we the people approve. It might be the Spratley Islands and all the other territory China is expanding into. That would be unpopular with conservatives, but as it might be something that is already past the point of no return anyway, no practical loss.

If the price is Taiwan, that would be different.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That sounds like a good suggestion. Here's another example, from the WSJ today-- where Trump is intervening directly to help out a chinese telecom co.