Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet on Wednesday, at a hastily arranged summit, for the first trilateral talks between the nations since 2015. The session, which Xi and Abe will use to get better insights about last week’s historic inter-Korean summit, is only the latest example of the geopolitical flux in the region, following the mini-rapprochement between North and South Korea.
Given the deep interests of both Beijing and Tokyo in this Korean reconciliation process, neither wants to watch the dialogue completely from the sidelines. Hence the reason why North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was summoned to Beijing in March — his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.
Yet, it is not just the implications of warming ties between Pyongyang and Seoul that is powering this week’s trilateral dialogue between China, Japan and South Korea. Another key driver behind the meeting is uncertainty evoked by United States President Donald Trump’s international agenda, including the trade tariff measures against Tokyo and Beijing in recent weeks, which give both nations greater incentive to engage, despite the fact that relations have been at a relative historical low point in recent years over the claims both have made to islands in the China Sea.
To this end, Xi will make a full diplomatic visit to Japan, as part of the trilateral dialogue, from tomorrow and until Friday. His trip represents the latest salvo by both Beijing and Tokyo to enhance relations in advance of the 40th anniversary this summer of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which established the diplomatic baseline for their bilateral relations.
Yet, it is Korea that will be centre stage in discussions. Both Xi and Abe are acutely aware that plans appear to advancing fast for the proposed Trump-Kim summit in May or June with the US president saying last Friday that he will soon disclose the date and location with Singapore and the demilitarised zone in Korea previously mooted as options. This follows new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last Sunday that there is a “real opportunity” for a nuclear deal, especially following Kim’s announcement that North Korea’s main nuclear testing site, Punggye-ri, is to close this month.
All of these developments underline the potential extent of the changing geopolitical chessboard in the region. Even hawkish new US National Security Adviser John Bolton contributed to the positive mood music by suggesting last Sunday that a US-Korean agreement could be modelled on that agreed by Libya on eliminating its weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003 in return for lifting of sanctions.
Following spiralling tensions in 2017 over the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes, the diplomatic respite that 2018 has brought has so far been remarkable. Characteristically, Trump has taken much credit for this, and his hard-line policies may indeed have been part of the mix of events that have brought Kim to the negotiating table.
Yet, as much as US pressure may well have been crucial in creating this diplomatic ‘window of opportunity’, the role of Beijing has also been key, given its own increasing support for international sanctions against Pyongyang. Traditionally, China has been reluctant to take too sweeping measures against its Communist neighbour because of fears of squeezing it so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised. Xi believes that this is probably not in his interests for at least two reasons. Firstly, if the Communist regime in the North falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too. In addition, he fears that the collapse of order in its neighbour could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, leading to a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor state in North.
As positive as the atmospherics currently appear around the planned Trump-Kim meeting, all sides will know there remain significant downside risks as well as opportunities in play. While Trump appears keen to meet Kim, he has previously said “that talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”.
This commentary reflects not just the volatility of Trump, but also the political pressure he is personally under on this issue, having drawn a political ‘red line’, previously, on Pyongyang possessing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US homeland. Strikingly, the US Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that if the last missile launched by North Korea — in November — had flown on a standard trajectory, rather than a lofted one, it would have had a range of 13,000 kilometres, which is enough to strike Europe, Australia, or any part of continental US. And this is why Trump will continue to keep all options on the table.
Taken overall, the Japan-China-South Korea meeting is only the latest indicator that the geopolitical chessboard is changing in Asia. And if the North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage, Trump will seek to turn the heat on Pyongyang again, given the pressure he is under on this issue.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.