China wasn’t invited to Singapore summit – but got everything it wanted

Chinese President Xi Jinping wasn’t invited to the Singapore summit but will have been pleased with its outcome
Chinese President Xi Jinping wasn’t invited to the Singapore summit but will have been pleased with its outcome

Not so long ago, China was written off as a bystander to landmark events with regards to North Korea.

Marginalised and some would say irrelevant, Beijing was seen as a witness to an unstoppable rapprochement between North Korea and the United States which reached a dramatic climax in Singapore.

But Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, didn’t need an invite to this week’s historic summit to ensure his interests were represented and his objectives achieved.

He got everything he would have wanted.

The end of “war games” and a hint that US troops would be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula would remove two barriers to China’s attempts to project its power across the region.

Meanwhile, a softening of sanctions will only improve trade with its neighbour.

China has long called for the end of military drills carried out by the United States and Seoul, as the first part of its “dual suspension’ strategy”, which Beijing believes will ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The second part of the strategy – Pyongyang halting its missile tests – had already become a reality in recent weeks as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seeks to present his country in a less belligerent light.

Undoubtedly, the end of US military exercises in South Korea is a major concession for Pyongyang. In addition, Mr Kim does not appear to have given anything in return.

But the drills are also aimed at China.

Beijing views them as a significant part of the US strategy to contain it and a constant reminder Washington has a major role in the region.

The potential withdrawal of more than 28,000 troops from the Korean peninsula would leave the path clear for China to assert itself as Asia’s dominant superpower.

So when US President Donald Trump said he would end the drills, China’s vision for the future of north-east Asia was beginning to take shape.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the agreement in Singapore showed China’s “dual suspension” proposals were practical.

Sensing the momentum was swinging in China’s favour, state media were also positive. “If the US stops joint military exercises with South Korea, it will be a big step forward on the Korean Peninsula,” the nationalist ‘Global Times’ newspaper said, adding dual suspension becoming a reality would signal “a new leaf will be turned over”.

“With a cooling down of military activities, less US military participation, and possibly an eventual US troop withdrawal, the peninsula will completely walk out of the shadow of the Cold War,” the newspaper added.

Mr Trump’s vow to end the drills – which he called “provocative” – was apparently made without first consulting Japan and South Korea.

Seoul’s Blue House spokesman said: “At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.”

Such confusion among US allies in Asia is also a major win for China.

It is likely that during Mr Kim’s two visits to China in the weeks leading up to the Singapore summit, he discussed with the Chinese president goals that would benefit both Beijing and Pyongyang – including the end of US drills.

And what other mutually beneficial policy adjustments could have been discussed by the two leaders?

North Korea is desperate for the US to halt “maximum pressure” sanctions which are crippling its domestic economy. China, which has resumed its traditional close relationship with North Korea in recent weeks, would be more than willing to soften the economic measures.

More than 90pc of North Korean overseas trade flows through China, and Mr Trump’s administration is giving mixed signals on whether sanctions can be relaxed. Mr Trump said in Singapore that the China-North Korean border was “maybe more open than it was when we first started. But that is what it is”.

Sensing an opportunity, even before Mr Trump had left Singapore, China’s Mr Geng reminded the world that if Pyongyang was seen to have turned a corner, then “sanction measures can be adjusted, including to pause or remove the relevant sanctions”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Beijing today to provide “an update” on the summit, the diplomat said.

Mr Pompeo also said he will seek to “underscore the importance of fully implementing all sanctions that are imposed on North Korea”.

His comments might suggest the US won’t give up on pressuring Mr Kim’s regime just yet.

But in the current climate, they could also be seen as an indicator that a confident China might need to be reined in as it increasingly gets what it wants with regards to North Korea. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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