Trump's failure to reach North Korea deal may be a win for China

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un's meeting in Vietnam ended without agreement.
PHOTO: AFP

Beijing stands to gain from the abrupt end to the second summit between North Korea and the United States, according to Chinese analysts.

They believe that the no-deal summit is actually in China's interest, and that Beijing's influence is set to increase as both Washington and Pyongyang will want to work more closely with China to extract a future agreement over denuclearisation, sanctions relief and regional stability.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump admitted his two-day summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had failed to reach a much-anticipated deal because of Pyongyang's demands that economic sanctions be lifted.

Just hours after the Hanoi meeting ended, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met North Korean deputy foreign minister Ri Kil-song in Beijing and promised that China would continue to play a "constructive role" in promoting a deal between the US and North Korea.

"The international community is deeply concerned about the Hanoi summit between the leaders of North Korea and the US," Wang told Xinhua, China's official news agency.

He said that the talks had entered "deep waters" and that it was not possible to avoid difficulties.

"But through continued dialogue, the overall direction of resolving the Korean peninsula issues - namely denuclearisation and the establishment of a peaceful mechanism - through political means is clear," Wang added.

Earlier, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang also stressed the importance of dialogue and mutual respect, and reiterated that Beijing would continue to play a constructive role.

It is expected that Kim will return to Pyongyang through China and will update President Xi Jinping on the Hanoi meeting.

Huang Jing, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University's Institute of International and Regional Studies, said he was not surprised that the summit had ended with no concrete results.

"There remains a huge gap in terms of what Washington and Pyongyang wanted from the denuclearisation talks and their bargaining ability," he said.

But such an unsatisfactory outcome may be welcomed in Beijing because "it would not be in China's interests if the US and North Korea can find a solution to the denuclearisation issue too quickly", Huang said.

While China officially supported talks between Trump and Kim, Beijing is deeply concerned about rapid rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang, and fears a shift in the regional power dynamic in which North Korea could be used against it.

According to Chinese diplomatic sources, North Korea - despite its geopolitical importance - has been and will remain a useful card in Beijing's long game against the US as their rivalry unfolds.

"For Beijing, it'd be better to hold the North Korea card than to use it," Huang said.

Although Trump insisted that the summit was not a failure and that it was important not to rush into a bad deal, the outcome was widely seen as a setback for the embattled US president, who was eager to score points diplomatically.

According to Huang, Trump's eagerness to make his mark by meeting Kim personally has not only helped Pyongyang gain international recognition as a de facto nuclear power, but also helped Beijing improve relations with its communist neighbour.

Wang Sheng, a North Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University, also said the fruitless Hanoi meeting underscored the sensitivity and difficulty of making any breakthrough on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear and missile arsenal.

"I think China's influence will expand afterwards, such as more mediation in the related multilateral meetings, or pushing Pyongyang harder to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and reform the North Korean economy," he said.

"And there's still leeway for negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. I don't think US-North Korean relations will worsen because of this meeting."

However, Sun Xingjie, another Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University, described the outcome on Thursday as a setback for China as well because "Beijing has very much wished to push ahead with the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."

"As to how the security situation in Northeast Asia changes in the future, we need to watch how Pyongyang reacts to this meeting afterwards. It's still early to say if the situation will suffer or remain unchanged," he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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