Mike Pompeo is expected to map out the next step for North Korea’s denuclearisation during his first trip to China as US secretary of state, as analysts say developments on the peninsula could ease strategic rivalry between China and the US in the region.
Pompeo will visit Beijing on Thursday, two days after the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that yielded a vague agreement on “complete denuclearisation” without specifying when or how it would be achieved.
Tasked with making that agreement concrete, Pompeo is due to hold talks with senior Chinese officials on the denuclearisation process, a final peace settlement for the Korean peninsula, and possible sanctions relief after months of escalating tension.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Wednesday said during a regular press conference that Pompeo would brief officials in Beijing on the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit.
Trump’s announcement after the talks that he would stop US war games with South Korea has drawn criticism that he made a major concession to the North before he had secured a concrete commitment from Kim.
But the US president stood by the decision. “We save a fortune by not doing war games, as long as we are negotiating in good faith – which both sides are!” he said in a tweet.
Earlier, Trump tweeted that North Korea was no longer the US’ biggest danger and that his meeting with Kim was “an interesting and very positive experience”. “Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to war with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!” he said.
Critics also said Trump’s move played into China’s hands, allaying Beijing’s fears over the presence of US troops on the Korean peninsula while it was also in line with its call for a “freeze for freeze” solution in which the North suspends its nuclear and missile testing in exchange for the halting or scaling back of US-South Korean military drills.
For China watchers, Beijing’s biggest gain from the Trump-Kim summit is not the potential decrease in the US military presence in the region, but an easing in rivalry between Beijing and Washington in Northeast Asia at a time of heightened tensions over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Some were sceptical over whether Trump was serious about completely halting the drills, and agreed that the US was unlikely to reduce its troop numbers in South Korea.
“China has gained more from the Trump-Kim summit than the US,” said Ni Feng, a researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The summit has eased the strategic competition between China and the US in the Northeast Asia region.”
During the manoeuvring before the summit, Trump called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “world-class poker player” after he met Kim in Dalian in early May – suggesting he believed Beijing may have influenced Kim and highlighting the mistrust between the two sides as the US pushes for a détente with the North, long seen as a buffer for China against American encroachment in the region.
Now, Trump and Kim have promised to “establish new US-[North Korea] relations” in their joint statement, a pledge that some are comparing to the US opening to China in 1972 led by then president Richard Nixon – and that could have game-changing implications for Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang.
North Korea’s official news agency KCNA on Wednesday reported that Trump and Kim had invited each other to visit their countries – and that both had accepted the invitation.
Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University and a cabinet adviser, said “China still has many doubts about this development” as it could be left out of future negotiations that may be led by the US and the two Koreas.
Beijing would also play a critical role on potential sanctions relief and providing a security guarantee for Pyongyang as the country moves towards denuclearisation.
China was quick to suggest sanctions on North Korea be relaxed as the negotiations make progress. Soon after Trump and Kim met in Singapore on Tuesday, the foreign ministry’s Geng said UN sanctions should support the current diplomatic efforts and reward concrete moves taken by Pyongyang to realise a phased denuclearisation.
“The US approach that there can only be sanctions relief when North Korea has completely denuclearised is not realistic,” Wu said. “China is supporting North Korea’s position, which is an action-for-action approach.”