Lawrence J. Korb, Matthew Feng
The United States and North Korea have been the focus of coverage, but China, despite sitting on the sidelines, has been, and will continue to be, the real winner.
The highly anticipated summit in Singapore on June 12 fell woefully short on substance and undermined American national security. While an agreement to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) between American and North Korean officials was nothing but a pipe dream, there was hope that President Donald Trump would be able to extract significant commitments from Kim Jong-un in return for simply agreeing to meet him. Instead, North Korea walked away with major unilateral concessions, including the freeze on joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises by the United States—which played right into the hands of the Chinese-promoted “freeze for freeze” strategy and cast doubt over American security guarantees to our allies across the region.
Exactly a week after the Singapore summit, Kim Jong-un made his third visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping, highlighting an increasing trend of formal ties between the two countries. Official Chinese Foreign Ministry remarks praised Kim for his progress toward denuclearization and emphasized Chinese support for North Korean economic development. The United States cannot stand idly by as China establishes normal relations with North Korea or modernizes its economy before actual, concrete steps are taken toward denuclearization and peace on the peninsula.
The United States and North Korea have been the focus of coverage, but China, despite sitting on the sidelines, has been, and will continue to be, the real winner. The summit not only relieved significant pressure on North Korea but also scaled back the American military threat in China’s backyard. Crucially, the longer the North Korea saga lingers and the more diplomatic attention is fixed on their nuclear weapons program, the more China avoids harsher scrutiny from the international community. The international community must avoid complacency with what minimal objectives have been accomplished and must recognize that, until it has achieved its end goals on the Korean Peninsula, China will quietly bide time, build up its military and economic capacity, and eventually challenge the United States. Make no mistake: the danger that China poses to American economic and security interests around the world will not dissipate without a concerted effort from the United States free of distractions.