Politics

Ex-US ambassador to China: Beijing is 'very much in the driver's seat' on North Korea

Key Points
  • The U.S. goal for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is shared by China but for different reasons, says ex-diplomat and ex-Sen. Max Baucus.
  • "Any solution we approach in finding a solution to all of this has to include China," he says.
  • Baucus says the U.S. needs to work with China but has to be aware of its endgame, getting U.S. troops to leave South Korea.
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China's in the 'driver's seat' after Trump scuttles summit, says Max Baucus

The U.S. goal for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is shared by China but for different reasons, said Max Baucus, former U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama and a former longtime Democratic senator.

"China is very much in the driver's seat," Baucus told CNBC on Friday, a day after President Donald Trump called off next month's planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, "China will find a solution that suits China."

Foreign policy experts have speculated that North Korea possibly wasn't on board to fully give up its nuclear ambitions, the stated goal of the U.S. for the now-canceled June 12 summit.

However, last week, Trump speculated whether Chinese President Xi Jinping may be influencing Kim. Trump voiced concerns about North Korea changing its posture toward the U.S. after Xi and Kim met in China on May 8, their second meeting in two months.

Chinese president Xi Jinping holds talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Dalian on May 7-8 2018.
Ju Peng | Xinhua | Getty Images

In response to Trump's statements, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that Beijing's position on North Korea has not changed. "We will hold fast to resolving the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula [and] the issue of peace and stability, through dialogue and negotiation."

In a "Squawk Box" interview, Baucus said Trump was right to scuttle the summit, but he insisted it was really "postponed" not "canceled," because both sides left the door open to possibly meeting down the road.

Trump's tweet Friday morning was also hopeful.

On his way to the U.S. Naval Academy graduation, Trump told reporters Friday that his administration has restarted dialogue with North Korea. "We'll see what happens. We're talking to them now."

Baucus, ahead of Trump's comments, stressed, "Any solution we approach in finding a solution to all of this has to include China." Chinese officials "don't really like Kim Jong Un because they can't control him quite at much as they'd like," he added.

While Kim wants to flex his muscles on the world stage, he can't afford to alienate China too much, considering "90 percent of the North Korean economy depends on China," Baucus added.

The U.S. also needs to work with China but has to be aware of Beijing's real endgame, Baucus said. "China would, frankly, like to see a solution so that U.S. troops leave South Korea," the Montana Democrat said. "That's China's goal. It's always been their goal. They think very long term."

Navigating China's role in defusing the North Korea situation is complicated for the U.S. because the Trump administration is also in the midst of trying to reach a trade deal and avoid a trade war with the world's second-largest economy.