The contours of conducting diplomacy assumed a new dimension when bilateral meetings took the centre stage over global or regional initiatives to address issues that had been plaguing the world for some time.
For example, while the global institutions such as the United Nations looked rudderless and regional organisations were reduced to bystanders, the inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on their own initiative scripted a new chapter in conducting diplomacy in the contemporary era.
From a period of belligerence and sabre-rattling some months ago, that raised the spectre of a major conflagration, to a situation when the leaders of South and North Korea sat face-to-face seeking peace, which hitherto had been elusive . The two leaders demonstrated a measure of bonhomie, and this was indeed a dramatic turnaround in the nature of conducting diplomacy.
By the same token and not far from the venue of the inter-Korean summit, Asia saw another important summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. The leaders of two major economies of Asia sat face-to-face at Wuhan demonstrating the spirit of camaraderie and seeking new grounds.
Both identified the guiding principles for bilateral ties, drew up a blueprint for cooperation and mapped out concrete measures to implement the consensus reached. Coming after the Doklam standoff in 2017, this unprecedented two-day ‘heart-to-heart’ summit aimed at strengthening India-China relations has opened a new chapter in bilateral ties. Both these summits effected a dramatic turnaround, resetting regional geopolitics, the significance of which shall begin to unfold slowly but steadily in the coming months.
This article shall deal with the first of the two issues mentioned. This two-part essay will examine the inter-Korean summit and the factors that made this happen. The first part sets the background of the summit and what exactly transpired and what one can expect in the coming months and years, focussing mainly on China’s role.
The second part will briefly examine the reactions of the stakeholders on the Korean issue on which much has already been written. What is missing or has been under-reported is the role of Japan as an important stakeholder as any development in the Korean peninsula and policy adopted by other stakeholders shall have an immediate bearing on Japan’s national security and other related issues.
Within less than four months of his New Year address in course of which President Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to meet President Moon Jae-in, the summit finally took place on April 27. The South Korean leader had successfully used the opportunity to welcome athletes and cheerleaders from the North to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics that it had hosted in February, with a joint team marching together under a common unification flag at the opening ceremony.
This demonstrated the breath-taking rapidity in which the summit culminated successfully. Kim thus became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea at the Panmunjom summit, in setting the stage for President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim on June 12 in Singapore.
What is the significance of the forthcoming Kim-Trump summit and its implications for China and the United States? Kim has announced the decision to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme on condition that the United States promises not to invade North Korea.
However, it seems that Kim is committed to maintain the North’s nuclear weapons programme as his announcement following his summit with Moon was rather vague and open to varied interpretations.
It would be naïve to miss the point in North Korea’s statements on denuclearization as the North has been strategic in its recent diplomatic outreaches; markedly, it has repaired its relations with China and South Korea.
After reaching out to South Korea, Kim undertook a secret trip to China for an audience with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in late March ahead of his summit with Moon. This was Kim’s first trip outside of the North since coming to power in December 2012.
This was followed in quick succession by another secret trip to Beijing in April for a discussion with Xi ahead of his summit meeting with Trump. Then, by announcing a halt in its nuclear and long-range missile tests, the North significantly lowered the possibility of China and Russia agreeing to additional sanctions in the United Nations.
It is possible that Kim’s return to diplomacy following the complications of its nuclear weapons programmes was a greater incentive than sanctions which had a secondary effect. Following the Kim-Moon summit, China expressed happiness that the chance of military conflict had considerably declined.
At the same time, as the inter-Korean summit was held without any outside mediation, it would have been hard for China to take credit, though Trump did acknowledge Beijing’s contribution to push Kim for the dialogue.
There is a flip side too. When Trump took credit that Kim opted for peace overtures because of pressure exerted by him, Pyongyang quickly reacted by saying that the US is trying to spoil the momentum already built for the peace process. There is a deeper dimension to this story, however.
Beijing did feel side-lined and even concerned that it may continue to remain so in future negotiations as well. The US views China as a strategic competitor and Beijing fears that Washington may use North Korea to balance the power equation against China in the region.
Going by this argument, the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit may have similar outcomes as with the Moon-Kim summit. What one may expect from the Trump-Kim summit is more symbolic gestures rather than concrete outcomes.
Beijing will be watching closely to see what might transpire with regard to finding a resolution to the Korean War, an area where Beijing will want a say in the agreed outcomes. By welcoming Kim a second time, China was sending the message to Trump that it would remain the key player in any peace process in the Korean Peninsula.
Earlier, Xi had his foreign minister Wang Yi to Pyongyang ahead of Kim’s summit with Trump to underline the fact that Beijing is committed to maintain cordial relations with Pyongyang; it also wants to be a key factor in the Korean peninsula peace process.
While in Pyongyang, Wang not only backed its shift of focus on economic growth but also its resolve to take steps to de-nuclearise. Beijing shall be happy to see a political solution on the Korean issue.
(To be concluded)
The writer is former ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are personal and do not represent either that of the ICCR or the Government of India