Ending the US-South Korea war games would be a win for Beijing
Kim Jong Un flew into Singapore on a Chinese plane for his summit with US President Donald Trump and left with a prized concession long sought by Beijing: the suspension of US-South Korean war games.
Not only that, but Trump also teased the possibility of a complete withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula at some point in the near future.
“It’s a huge win for China,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at CSIS, told CNN.
The possible reduction of US military in the region has been a policy goal in China for years, especially in light of former US President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, which was interpreted in Beijing as a means of containing the country’s rise.
The Chinese government has repeatedly chafed under the web of US alliances that spreads across the Asia region, and East Asia in particular, where American troops and military hardware are posted in both Japan and South Korea.
Currently there are around 28,000 American troops in South Korea, as well as another 49,000 in Japan.
It remains unclear exactly which “war games” Trump is intending to end, at present, the US and South Korea hold numerous military exercises several times a year.
Nevertheless, even a limited suspension of activity would be welcomed in Beijing, say analysts.
The Chinese government would see the suspension of drills as a prelude to the eventual withdrawal of US military forces on the Peninsula or, even better, a fraying of the alliance between Washington and Seoul, Glaser told CNN.
“If they end these exercises then people in South Korea will begin to question why are US troops even there?” said Glaser.
On Tuesday, while announcing the suspension of US South Korea drills, President Trump said it wasn’t part of the plan to withdraw US troops but “I hope it will be eventually.”
The US President’s statement was in stark contrast to the reassurances given by his top military official just over a week earlier.
Speaking in Singapore in early June, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis attempted to assure America’s allies in the Asia region that Washington wasn’t going anywhere.
“Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater,” he said.
The mixed messages from the Trump administration is likely to have been music to China’s ears.
“The Chinese have certainly wanted to weaken US alliances, they’ve wanted to set in motion a process which would result in withdrawal of US troops from the region … I think the Chinese see a huge opportunity here,” said Glaser.
US-China tensions have spiked in recent months over Chinese military fortifications on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Given Trump’s announcement on Tuesday, it would appear Beijing has reason to be cautiously optimistic about US power in the region.
But even if the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea went ahead, there is the possibility the United States military could simply move some of those same troops to challenge the Chinese government on another front, Timothy Heath, senior international defense analyst at Rand, told CNN before the summit.
“Washington would likely redeploy any freed up troops and equipment to other bases in Asia, most likely Japan and in rotations through Philippines, Australia, and elsewhere,” he said.
It wasn’t only military possibilities which opened up for China as a result of the Trump Kim summit on Tuesday.
With a satisfied US President and a compliant North Korea, Beijing may also be able to push for sanctions relief at the UN Security Council.
“Sanctions can be adjusted accordingly, including suspending or lifting relevant measures,” said Geng Shuang, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, responding to a CNN question about sanctions relief Wednesday.
“China always holds the view that sanctions are not the goal.”
Analysts largely agree that China only begrudgingly signed on to the latest rounds of sanctions against the Kim regime, feeling forced to do so by a combination of increasingly provocative North Korean nuclear and missile tests and international pressure led by the United States.
But China has no interest in seeing the North Korea collapse, viewing the country as a strategic buffer wedged between it and US forces on the Peninsula. A collapse would also trigger a refugee crisis on its border.
Therefore, Beijing will likely look for any excuse to argue for sanctions relief.
Speculation that China is allowing more trade across its border with North Korea has grown recently, based largely on media reports citing anecdotal evidence.
At his news conference Tuesday, President Trump thanked President Xi for closing up that border, though he added that’s happened, “maybe a little less the last couple of months.”
CNN has spoken with people in the city of Dandong, a key Chinese North Korean trading hub, who say little has changed at the border.
The flow of cross-border trade remains down, though there is hope among residents and traders that the summit will cause business to pick back up.
By Ben Westcott, Brad Lendon and Matt Rivers, CNN