China and Russia see the now-concluded Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as vindicating their views on how the thorny issue of a nuclear armed North Korea could and should be approached. Security analysts, however, are less certain about the outcome of the summit, especially Trump’s announcement that he would halt “war games” on the peninsula.
Some argue the announcement is not only in line with Pyongyang’s interests but Beijing’s bigger strategic objectives as well.
Commenting on the summit, the Kremlin said the meeting had shown that President Vladimir Putin had been right to advocate direct dialogue as the only way to reduce tensions on the peninsula.
Beijing took the opportunity to give itself a pat on the back as well.
At a regular press briefing Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Trump’s post-summit remarks about the “war games” validate its “dual suspension” proposal.
“When it comes to Trump’s statement yesterday [Tuesday] that he would halt South Korea and the United States’ military drills, I can only say that China’s proposal is reasonable and practical. It is also in line with the interests of all sides and addresses all sides’ concerns,” Geng said.
China has long advocated that the best way forward is for North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile tests and for Washington and Seoul to suspend military exercises.
The proposal has long been a point of heated debate among analysts and former officials in the U.S. who argue that the North’s nuclear activities are illegal and in violation of United Nations sanctions, while military exercises are legal and a key part of the United States’ force presence abroad and relations with its allies.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Trump called the exercises “expensive” and “provocative.” He also said the suspension of military drills will only be on the table as long as efforts to denuclearize the peninsula move forward in good faith.
The announcement has already stirred up a vigorous debate in the United States, but some argue that Trump’s gestures and flattery of Kim were necessary steps.
Shen Dingli, a political science professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said that Trump’s approach to Kim has raised the bar for expectations on what Kim should do going forward.
“In Pyongyang, there’s still internal opposition to giving up their nuclear weapons which they have worked so hard to obtain and they are waiting for the U.S. to extend more goodwill, so a narrative can be built up for the domestic audience that America is sincere,” Shen said.
For some, the debate is about more than just exercises and by announcing that he would end the “war games,” President Trump has given Beijing just what it wanted.
Before the Singapore summit, Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping twice. Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor (of security studies) at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said that her read of those meetings was that China wanted Kim to get the United States’ military presence on the peninsula back on the table.
“So, it’s not just this freeze for freeze, but the fact that the United States is now willing to negotiate about its military activities and its force posture is something that China has been pushing for,” Mastro said. “China is going to try to kind of milk this for as much as they can before it falls apart.”
In addition to the exercises, Trump expressed a wish to one day withdraw troops from South Korea.
Lindsey Ford, director of political security affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Trump’s announcement strengthens the Chinese narrative about the destabilizing nature of the U.S. security presence in the region and how it is a relic of the Cold War.
“To have the United States President out there using similar words (to China) and saying these things are really provocative, it’s like he’s writing their talking points for them,” Ford said.
In China, state media coverage of the summit and its results have been largely low key. On Wednesday, reporting on the summit was limited on CCTV’s domestic news channel, compared to lengthier reports on the Group of Seven dispute between the United States and Canada.
Analysts said China is clearly pleased with the outcome, but developments on the ground in North Korea will be key going forward.
Frank Aum, the senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that the agreement does many things that are in line with Beijing’s goals. It starts the diplomatic process, avoids war on the peninsula and in turn instability in North Korea as well as carrying out the dual freeze, he said.
“The outcomes of the summit basically provide China everything that they’ve been seeking,” Aum said. “So, I think they’re very happy with the result of the summit.”
Analysts were also quick to raise concerns about the lack of detail in the agreement and clarity about future steps.
The Asia Society Policy Institute’s Ford said that the lack of specifics in the joint agreement gives negotiators a weak foundation on which to start.
“The big question for me now is, does this give Mike Pompeo and his team and the other negotiators what they need to actually run a process that leads to something credible in constraining North Korea’s nuclear program?” Ford asked, referring to the U.S. secretary of state.
Also, by removing military exercises, she worries that the United States has handed over a lot of political leverage.
In the aftermath of the summit, Secretary Pompeo traveled to Seoul for talks Thursday with President Moon Jae-in. Pompeo will then fly to Beijing to brief Chinese officials on the summit. Pompeo and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton are expected to meet with North Korean officials next week to begin working out the details of North Korea’s denuclearization.
Joyce Huang contributed to this story