ON SUNDAY, Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were snapped exchanging a warm farewell.
The pair gave each other a triple-hug at the end of an unexpected meeting in South Korea’s presidential office, where they agreed to “positively cooperate with each other as ever to improve North Korea-US relations and establish a mechanism for permanent and durable peace”.
But while most of the conversation around the summit has focused on the US and the Korean peninsular, some experts say the central player in all of this is China.
China may be flying relatively under the radar, but it’s terrified of the divided countries striking up any deal that expands America’s influence in the region.
Even though we haven’t heard much from it, Beijing’s role in how this goes down will be bigger than you may think.
CHINA’S ROLE IN THE SUMMIT
Kim, Trump, Kim, Trump, Kim, Trump.
Since it was announced, the on-again-off-again summit between North Korea and the United States has largely centered on these two figures.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute last night, Asia-Pacific security expert Professor Bates Gill said this has resulted in a crucial forgotten key player: China.
“In all the theatrics and the melodrama, all too often lost is the absolute centrality of China’s role here,” he said. “I think it would be extremely difficult to reach an end point that most of us would consider positive without China at a minimum acquiescing to it.”
Why is China so important? For one thing, the rising superpower shares a border with North Korea. It also has historic ties to North Korea.
And most importantly, it has key national interests in the fate of the Korean peninsular, and the Chinese Communist Party is not going to let a situation contrary to its interests unfold without a fight.
“As we move towards this bilaterial summit with the United States – if it occurs – I think Xi Jinping will be a little bit nervous about where it’s going to go,” Prof Gill said. “This would explain why they had that secret meeting.”
In March, Mr Kim made a historic secret train trip to Beijing to meet with Mr Xi. Chinese media confirmed the meeting after he left, saying the pair had “successful talks” and reaffirmed their relationship.
“If the summit gets postponed, I think we’ll see Xi and Kim sitting down again to make sure China’s message is delivered, and that they get the outcomes they want.”
He said the Trump administration has lost sight of the crucial role Beijing plays here.
For China, there are some perks to the summit.
It wants the White House to relax the strict sanctions on North Korea, and it wants the isolated nation to denuclearise and eventually open up to the world.
But China’s biggest fear is the expansion of America’s presence – should the two Koreas be reunited on their terms. At the same time, one of its main goals is getting the US out of the region altogether.
“The Chinese could live with a unified Korea… that is consistent with their interests,” Prof Gill said. “But until that correlation of circumstances arises – and I don’t see that happening any time soon – the preferred option is continued division.
“Of course, it creates tensions and difficulties that China would prefer weren’t there… a significant American military presence, the recent business with China’s concerns over the deployment of anti-missile batteries, [and] claims it could undermine its own nuclear deterrent.
“But all of that, troublesome as it is, from China’s point of view is better than a unified Korea that unfolds entirely on South Korean or US-oriented terms, which would potentially allow for the expansion of US presence right up on Chinese borders.
“That’s not something it wants to see. So for now, division seems to work.”
Earlier this month, the Lowy Institute released its Asia Power Index 2018, which ranked 25 countries in the Asia-Pacific region according to their economic resources, military, influence, relationships and defence.
Overall, the report found that while the United States remained on top overall, China was only trailing behind, and is expected to overtake the US as the dominant power over the next decade.
IS KIM JONG-UN THE BIG WINNER HERE?
Some experts have argued that Kim Jong-un will emerge from the summit as the biggest winner, regardless of what is actually discussed between the leaders.
Prof Gill and Doctor Euan Graham, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, noted that he stands to gain legitimacy and status simply by having a US President agree to meet him — which North Korean dictators have craved for decades.
“I think Kim certainly stands to gain more by this summit happening than the opposite party,” Dr Graham said.
For the North Korean leader, this meeting with the US leader is the “ultimate prize”.
Dr Graham noted that while he’s not entirely free from risk — particularly if the summit “exposes the lack of faith, the lying and cheating on North Korea’s part” — he evidently thinks it’s a gamble worth making.
“He’s shown he’s willing to assume risk, including by flying all the way to Singapore to conduct this,” he said. “I think he thinks it’s worth it on balance.”
By Gavin Fernando
News Corporation Network