In Chinese President Xi Jingping’s wildest dreams, he could not have envisioned a better outcome of President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — at least as it concerns Beijing’s interests.
After one day of meetings, Trump agreed to halt U.S.-South Korea military exercises, doing exactly what the Chinese government proposed ahead of the summit. Trump publicly stated that he wants to remove all U.S. troops from South Korea, which would be a huge strategic windfall for China. Trump acknowledged that China is busting sanctions on North Korea but indicated there’s nothing he can do about it. And Trump legitimized the North Korean regime, beginning a long process that will keep Beijing as a key player with huge leverage on both sides.
“Trump loves to characterize things as winners and losers, and Xi Jinping appears to be the biggest winner of all after the historic Trump-Kim summit,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies.
Only a few months ago, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship was on the rocks. But Xi and Kim have patched things up, coordinated their strategy and now — thanks to Trump — achieved their desired summit outcome. Meanwhile, Trump’s concessions risk alienating allies, undermining the U.S. strategic posture in East Asia and endorsing China’s preferred frame for the diplomacy. In fact, the “deal” that Trump and Kim agreed to in Singapore is essentially the “freeze-for-freeze” arrangement that was originally put forth by Beijing.
“Eroding trust in U.S. alliances is a key win for Xi Jinping,” Fallon said. “Beijing wanted ‘freeze for freeze’ and no joint exercises, which is exactly what Trump delivered for apparently no trade-off whatsoever. So much for art of the deal.”
Trump didn’t just pause U.S.-South Korean military exercises. He used China’s and North Korea’s own rhetoric to criticize the exercises, which previously the U.S. has defended as necessary for military readiness and deterrence.
“We will be stopping the war games,” Trump said at his Tuesday news conference. “We’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative,” he added.
In that same news conference, Trump publicly admitted that he still wants to remove all U.S. troops from South Korea. Trump has been talking about that privately for years. But on Tuesday, he said he aspired to include U.S. troop reductions in future negotiations with Pyongyang.
“I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have right now 32,000 soldiers in South Korea,” Trump said. “… That’s not part of the [North Korea] equation right now. At some point, I hope it will be.”
Trump also handed Beijing a win in its drive to undermine the “maximum pressure” campaign led by the U.S., South Korea and Japan. Trump not only said he would hold off imposing new sanctions on North Korea, he also admitted that China was not enforcing sanctions strictly and then shrugged it off.
“President Xi of China … has really closed up that border, maybe a little less so over the last couple of months, but that’s OK,” Trump said. “I think over the last two months, the border is more open than it was when we first started. But that is what it is,” he said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry upped the ante on Tuesday by calling for sanctions relief for North Korea, to build off the goodwill from the Trump-Kim meeting. Beijing is happy to agree with Trump that the summit was a success just because it happened.
“The fact that leaders from both countries can sit together and have an equal conversation already has significant meaning. This is creating a new history, and Beijing welcomes and supports such outcome,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden told me that having a good meeting with Kim that opens up a process for future talks is a positive thing. But we should not think North Korea has agreed to anything new, and we must realize we paid a high price.
“We paid for it by giving both the appearance and the reality — through the president’s words — a sense of equivalency to one of the world’s worst dictators,” he said. “And all we got out of it was an agreement to think about agreeing sometime in the future.”
As an additional bonus for China, Trump has thrown confusion into America’s alliances with South Korea and Japan. Seoul’s Blue House spokesman said Tuesday: “At this moment, the meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks requires more clear understanding.” The Japanese government, which has been urging Trump not to make concessions to Kim without real complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear and missile programs, must be mortified.
Trump said that he is relying on instinct and that he believes Kim is serious about denuclearization, wants the economic development assistance Trump is offering and is being honest about his intention to follow through.
“I think he’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’ ” Trump said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”
Blind faith in the sincerity of a North Korean dictator is not a valid basis for gutting the U.S. strategic posture in Asia, calling alliance relationships into question and lifting the pressure on North Korea. If Chinese officials’ strategic aim is to weaken America’s standing in their region, Trump just did a good bit of their work for them.