I cannot agree with the assessments of other China specialists who have written about the critical Xi-Kim summit. One appraisal , for example, suggests: “China is desperate to claw its way back into the center of crucial discussions that will soon take place.” Another appears to claim that China wants the crisis to continue so that that the United States will be distracted from competing with China for regional and global influence. To put it mildly, I find both appraisals to be excessively pessimistic, apparently rooted in a zero-sum mindset that is unfortunate. Regular readers of Dragon Eye will know that I am substantially more optimistic regarding Chinese intentions. Indeed, it is simply obvious that China finds North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons as abhorrent, not least because this threat has allowed the United States to consolidate its alliance structure in East Asia, as well as for Japan to build up its forces, etc.
But what can China actually do to facilitate North Korean denuclearization beyond just patting Kim on the back, modulating economic sanctions obviously, and urging the youthful leader to negotiate in good faith with the United States? Actually, China can and should be much more proactive. Here are four things that Beijing should put on the table as concrete offers to support the upcoming and highly complex Trump-Kim negotiations. First and foremost, China should offer up technical support for arms control verification. China has the requisite expertise obviously in both nuclear weaponry and delivery systems, as well as the related labs that support these efforts. By agreeing to serve as “verifier in chief,” China can help to ease the enormous concerns that North Korea’s leaders will no doubt have about allowing the country to be crawling with Western arms inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), etc. That system has not worked well in the Middle East, but China’s offer in this regard would save extraordinary amounts of bitter bile spilled in negotiations and subsequent wrangling. China has every incentive to perform this role in a fair, accurate, and thorough manner.
How about security assurances? It’s a fair bet that Kim wants more than just a few happy snaps with Trump and a piece of paper declaring that the United States does not have malign intentions. Giving security assurances teeth would mean reaffirming the 1961 Mutual Aid and Cooperation Treaty binding Pyongyang and Beijing. That treaty has been allowed to wither, but Beijing’s second logical step to support the Kim-Trump summit would be to once again commit China to the defense of North Korea if it is attacked and provided that it is taking steps toward denuclearization. However, since such reaffirmations are also “just words,” an even more concrete symbol of such assurances would be the insertion of some Chinese military forces into North Korea. This could vary from a small “tripwire” force of a few dozen soldiers that guards a cemetery of China’s fallen from the Korean War to something more ambitious. For example, the third step could involve the transfer or regular rotation of more elite, medium-sized Chinese forces of a couple of brigades of either airborne soldiers, armor, or air defense. That force should not be too large, of course, and should not unnerve either the hosts (North Korea) or South Korea either. Its purpose would be to “balance,” at least in some respects, the vast conventional superiority that the ROK-U.S. alliance has attained, but the main goal of the force would be to serve as symbolic of China’s security assurances. A fourth and final Chinese measure that could meaningfully influence Kim’s disposition to negotiate his nuclear arms away would be a commitment to modernize North Korean conventional forces (at “friendship” prices, of course). The North Korean air force, navy, and ground forces are all badly in need of new equipment and all the training that would have to accompany the flood of “new toys.” If Kim is to be enticed into giving up his nuclear “toys” (on which North Koreans labored so hard at great expense for many decades) then the conventional armaments given over to North Korea should be grand indeed. Pyongyang’s taking possession of some new Chinese frigates, tanks, and fighters would not appreciably impact the balance on the Peninsula, but it would sure make for a grand parade—and the Kims are known to like parades. Each of these measures elaborated above, moreover, would be strengthened if China invited Russia to take similar and parallel steps toward ensuring North Korean security on a fully denuclearized peninsula. Additionally, it goes almost without saying that Beijing should dangle a bursting bounty of economic carrots as well. That point is so obvious that it requires no elaboration.
But what if, as most specialists seem to think, that all these carrots will be to no avail and North Korea will not actually agree to full denuclearization. The American president and his advisors had best think over that situation very carefully, since the war scenario will not really look any more appetizing on the day after a failed negotiation. They would be wiser to consider a range of midway points that would allow for a partial agreement. These midway points could, for example, include 1) an “opaque” DPRK nuclear arsenal of small dimensions in which warheads are stored (possibly in an unfinished state) separately from delivery systems; or 2) a “minimal deterrent” in which the DPRK is permitted to retain some small number of weapons—ideally a handful under external supervision; or a 3) not so ideal, but still beneficial agreement to completely forgo the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Limited sanctions relief could be permitted to encourage Pyongyang to “play ball,” holding out the promise of full sanctions relief and normalized diplomatic relations if and when full denuclearization can be reached.