China Must Beware of Summit's Unintended Consequences

June 11, 2018


If Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un make peace and agree to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in their Singapore summit, the benefits would be felt across the region, not least in China, or so conventional wisdom has it. Beijing would presumably see the threat of war in a bordering country almost disappear, trade sanctions lifted and a longtime ally in Pyongyang enter a new era of stability. Not so fast, Asia analysts say. Beware the law of unintended consequences. "Stability on the (Korean) Peninsula might mean the US is freer to pursue strategic competition with China than it is now," said Corey Wallace, an Asian security analyst at Freie University in Berlin.


That competition has come to the forefront in the run-up to the June 12 summit as US-China tensions have spiked over Chinese military fortifications on man-made islands in the South China Sea. "Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion," US Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Shangri-La defense forum in Singapore. With responsibility for protecting South Korea reduced, those forces could be used to project US power in other parts of the Asia-Pacific such as Japan, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines - and in doing so, place a renewed focus on countering Chinese influence in the region.


Beijing must also be wary its longtime ally in Pyongyang doesn't gravitate toward a new friend in Washington. "Rapprochement could harm China's interests if North Korea starts making decisions that prioritize US over Chinese preferences to maintain good ties," said Timothy Heath, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp. "Like every country in Asia, North Korea has an incentive to seek warmer ties with the US to balance against Chinese power." For instance, North Korea might be able to negotiate better trade deals with the US and the West than it currently receives from China, its biggest trading partner.


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