“China’s suggestion is, as a first step, for North Korea to suspend nuclear activity, and for the U.S. and South Korea to also suspend large-scale military drills,” Wang Yi, then China’s foreign minister, said in March 2017.
If you look past all the talk of making history and moving forward, all the photo ops and selfies, the headline news from Singapore was that Trump said the United States would suspend “war games,” which he descried as “expensive” and “very provocative.”
In terms of what this means for China, consider two quick points:
First, it’s worth noting that Trump’s promise to suspend war games did not appear to come with a comparable concession from the North Korean side. Instead, North Korea simply reiterated an existing commitment to denuclearization without specifying what that means or when it could happen. That appears to be a win for Kim and his backers in Beijing.
Second, Trump appears to have adapted some of China’s language — which Chinese diplomats will love.
The United States has had a military presence in South Korea for decades, which it and South Korea have long maintained is necessary for defense — and as a deterrent to North Korean aggression.
North Korea and China see the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea as a threat and an affront. When it comes to U.S.-South Korean war games, the word “provocative” is usually coming from Pyongyang or Beijing, not the United States — let alone the U.S. president.
By appearing to surprise the South Koreans and using the word “provocative” to describe a long-standing U.S. and South Korean position, Trump has likely hurt ties with Seoul and shored up his standing with Beijing.
In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry praised the outcome. “We highly appreciate the political decisions made by the leaders of the DPRK and the United States,” it said, using the abbreviation of North Korea's official name.
In coming weeks, China will need to find a way back into the center of the negotiations, or risk being left out of the Trump-Kim bromance. In the short term, it can likely count this as a win.
“China's objectives on the Korean Peninsula have been to maintain stability, encourage North Korea’s denuclearization and reduce U.S. influence,” said Abraham Denmark, director of Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Today, Beijing got everything that they wanted.”
Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.