- - Sunday, June 24, 2018


North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un’s latest visit to Beijing last week cannot obscure the fact that China, once the primary conduit between Washington and Pyongyang, is at risk of being largely left on the outside. The White House has eroded China’s leverage by establishing a direct telephone link — a virtual hotline — to Mr. Kim.

In fact, President Donald Trump, by directly engaging Pyongyang over a nuclear and peace deal, has effectively cut out the middleman, China.

Beijing, which values North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. military presence in South Korea, has reason to be suspicious of Mr. Kim’s overtures to America and the Trump administration’s direct dealings with Pyongyang. At the center of Mr. Trump’s North Korea diplomacy is an effort to marginalize China’s regional role.

North Korea is China’s only formal military ally. A 1961 “friendship treaty” obligates China and North Korea to aid each other if attacked. But as bilateral relations soured since Mr. Kim assumed power in late 2011, Chinese analysts criticized the pact as outdated.

Today, Beijing fears being sidelined in its own strategic backyard. It is apprehensive that, just as it turned against the Soviet Union after the Nixon-Kissinger “opening” in the early 1970s, its estranged ally, North Korea, could similarly switch allegiances. Mr. Kim, however, seems more interested in achieving a limited goal — rebalancing his foreign policy by mending fences with the U.S. so as to lessen North Korea’s economic and security reliance on its millennial rival, China.

The path to North Korea’s denuclearization promises to be long and difficult. However, the Trump administration, by bypassing Beijing and establishing direct links with Pyongyang, has heightened China’s worries.

Mr. Trump’s critics, however, have claimed that his epochal summit with Mr. Kim was a diplomatic windfall for China. They have also accused Mr. Trump of making major concessions in exchange for securing vague commitments with no clear timelines. The only concession Mr. Trump made — suspension of U.S. war games with South Korea as a gesture of good faith — is easily reversible if negotiations do not yield progress. Regular military training has not been halted.

To Mr. Trump’s credit, he has correctly described as “very provocative” the U.S.-led war games, which, with live-fire drills, simulate a full-scale invasion of North Korea every spring. Critics are upset that he has lifted the pretense that these war games are routine military exercises and defensive in nature.

To be sure, in what became known as the “freeze for freeze” formula, Beijing last September proposed the suspension of the U.S. war games in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. It was Mr. Kim, however, who undermined the Chinese proposal by unilaterally declaring a test moratorium in April without any reciprocal U.S. concession.

Under Barack Obama, Washington helped end Myanmar’s international isolation, with the U.S. president paying a historic visit to that county in 2012 — a trip that led to Myanmar cutting its dependence on China. Now Mr. Trump is encouraging another isolated, China-dependent state, North Korea, to end its international pariah status.

North Korea is resource-rich like Myanmar. North Korea, however, is armed with potent nuclear and missile capabilities. North Korea is also a homogenous and regimented society, in contrast to ethnically diverse Myanmar, the seat of the world’s longest-raging civil war.

Mr. Trump is right that at this stage transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship matters more than denuclearization. If the West encourages Mr. Kim’s efforts to modernize the North Korean economy, just as it aided China’s economic rise, it will help to moderate Pyongyang’s behavior. Economic engagement can achieve a lot more than economic sanctions, which counterproductively accelerated North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

Instead of helping North Korea to escape from China’s clutches, U.S. policy under Mr. Trump’s predecessors helped Beijing to play the North Korea card against America and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. Beijing also sought to string the Trump-led U.S. along on North Korea, until Washington established direct contact with Pyongyang.

Alarmed by Washington’s diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang, China’s Xi Jinping has hosted Mr. Kim three times in the past three months. Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump, as they brace for a trade conflict, are both wooing Mr. Kim. But Mr. Trump’s diplomacy and direct link have given Mr. Kim — who has bristled at his country’s dependence on China and Beijing’s backing of United Nations sanctions against North Korea — new leverage with Mr. Xi on bilateral issues.

Even before Mr. Trump took office, a shift in America’s North Korea policy had become imperative, with the sanctions-only approach proving a conspicuous failure by encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities. Mr. Trump’s sanctions-with-engagement policy has sought to address that imperative by seizing on Pyongyang’s desire to unlock frozen ties with America and by exploiting the growing strains in the China-North Korea ties.

The new policy has initiated a process that, even if it does not clear the path to North Korean disarmament, is likely to undermine long-term Chinese interests. Indeed, by constricting China’s regional leverage and role, Mr. Trump’s direct diplomacy promises to positively change northeast Asian geopolitics.

• Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

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