Beijing's best outcome from Korea talks: US troops out of the Korean Peninsula

  • The best outcome for China from President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's meeting will be the U.S. pulling troops out of the Korean Peninsula eventually.
  • The "nightmare scenario" for Beijing would be a unified Korea allied to the U.S. with American troops based near China's border, say analysts.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with China's President Xi Jinping, in Dalian.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with China's President Xi Jinping, in Dalian.

China will be closely watching President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's meeting in Singapore next Tuesday, not least because Beijing's best outcome would be for U.S. troops to get out of the Korean Peninsula, said analysts.

"Beijing will be advocating that the price for peace should be a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea," said Hugo Brennan, senior politics analyst for Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy.

But first, China may be trying to angle itself back into the game after earlier speculation that the country was responsible for an earlier derailment of Trump and Kim's meeting. That was as Beijing was becoming increasing nervous that a potential reunification of North and South Korea may bring U.S. troops closer to its doors.

Despite that risk, suggestions that China wants to "spoil the party at any cost" are "wide off the mark," Brennan said.

After all, Beijing has a strategic interest in reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese also would not want to put Trump's "fire and fury" threat to the test, said Brennan.

"China's original hope was that if there is a deal, a great bargain, China will want to see the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the [Korean] Peninsula, and the dissolution of the U.S.-South Korea [military] alliance. In that case, the Korean Peninsula will return to China's traditional sphere of influence," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program and director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

However, Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that any discussion about U.S. military presence in South Korea will be "separate and distinct" from the negotiations with Pyongyang.

"That issue will not come up in the discussions with [North Korea] and as you all recognize; those troops are there as a recognition of a security challenge," Mattis said.

The big risk for China

The Trump-Kim summit presents a big risk for Beijing.

"Beijing is wary of being side-lined and wants to safeguard its security and geopolitical interests, which explains Kim's second visit to China," said Brennan.

After all, as many have also pointed out, the "nightmare scenario" for Beijing would be a unified Korea allied to the U.S. with American troops based near China's border.

So "it doesn't want to see a quick partnership between the U.S. and North Korea" which will undermine China's influence, Sun added.

Still leveraging on North Korea

China will continue to leverage on its relationship with ally North Korea to negotiate with Trump, using it to get the U.S. administration to back down on punitive trade measures against China, analysts say.

"The North Korea issue has given China leverage over the Trump administration and stayed Washington's hand on trade and the South China Sea," said Brennan.

"Beijing will use its influence with Kim to prevent any outcome that threatens this geopolitical advantage," he added.

Trump has consistently deemed trade with China unfair to America, but indicated last year that he had held back from further action as he sought Beijing's help in bringing North Korea's nuclear ambitions under control.

"Well, for China, since the improvement of relations on the [Korean] Peninsula this year, the trade deal China got is so much worse," said Sun, referring to recent plans by Washington to impose heavy tariffs on Chinese imports.

China's position in its trade and geopolitical negotiations with the U.S. will be compromised should there be an end to the Korean War without China's buy-in. However, Beijing is still holding on to a "most notable hope that North Korea will not be naive enough to trust the Americans, so China still has an intrinsic role to play" in ensuring the survival of Kim's regime, said Sun.