The 19th Party Congress held in October marked the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s second term. President Xi delivered a speech at the congress outlining his continuing efforts to achieve the “Chinese Dream” and a “moderately prosperous society” – slogans of Chinese development goals – and transform the nation into a powerful world leader. The event also represented an opportunity for Xi to consolidate his power and institute structural reforms that will keep himself and the Chinese Communist Party at the center of the nation’s development plans.
Many are calling the 19th Party Congress the start of a shift to a new era of reform and development for China. The country used the opportunity to announce its plans to fully modernize its military, end corruption, eliminate environmental pollution, and reduce the development imbalance between regions. They also plan to initiate a “new style” of international and regional relations. However, overtures towards a new era of foreign relations based on a “common destiny” of nations and a harmonious new world order mask the more economic motives of having regional stability conducive to further development.
Establishing a new era of regional relations, though, is much easier said than done. North Korea’s nuclear program, for one, will continue to present one of the biggest roadblocks towards this goal in Xi’s second term. As it stands, China cannot reconcile such a plan for Northeast Asian peace and stability with the North’s accelerating nuclear and missile program development. The Trump administration, acknowledging both claims of the North’s missiles to reach mainland US targets and China’s support for the regime, is considering greater economic retaliation against China. China’s relations with both Koreas has thus become one of the primary driving elements of US-China relations. In other words, China is prevented from focusing on “peace on the Korean Peninsula” solely through its “regional strategy” due to increased US pressure, leading it to focus on its own role as a “powerful nation” engaging in a more “global strategy.”
As China wishes to avoid regional instability, Xi Jinping will likely use his new lease on power to go on the offensive towards achieving a solution and take control of the North Korea problem. It is possible that China will try and entice North Korea back to the negotiating table while at the same time continuing to implement international sanctions, and also attempting to revive the long-stalled 6-party talks. South Korea and China will, however, need to first repair their relations which have sharply deteriorated over the last two years due to the THAAD issue and China’s subsequent economic retaliation against the South. There are a few signs that the two are already in the process of repairing relations, including an agreement to extend a currency swap deal on October 12 and high-level talks on October 31 centered specifically on improving relations, which may see further developments following the sideline meeting between Xi and South Korean President Moon at the APEC summit.
China will likely stick to its strategy of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” – another slogan that Xi has been touting regarding the middle kingdom’s relations with neighboring countries like South Korea. Most importantly though, the two countries will have to find a way out of the stalemate surrounding the THAAD program. China continues to demand more transparency, a cessation to Japan-South Korea cooperation over THAAD, access to the installation sites, and checks on the system’s ability to interfere with or intercept Chinese strategic assets.
Despite this, the two countries have set themselves on a course for reconciliation with coming high-level talks and the possibility of more inter-regional cooperation, cultural exchange, and the easing of sanctions. China could use improved relations with South Korea as a basis for kicking off a new round of 6-party talks or acting as a mediator in fresh US-North Korea or North-South Korea talks. The South may also be more likely to accede to some Chinese demands as it feels the urgency to create a peaceful and stable regional atmosphere in the run-up to next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics.
Another slogan arising from the 19th Party Congress alludes to how Xi intends to address regional issues – especially the North Korean nuclear crisis – through an aggressive “diplomatic offensive.” Reports of Xi responding to Kim Jong Un’s congratulatory phone call after the congress also hints at the possibility of China and North Korea mending ties. On the other hand, if the North continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs, China may respond by cutting off the flow of oil or completely shutting out North Korean workers. The US may also abandon efforts to improve relations with China and turn towards military action if it feels its national security is threatened by the North’s missiles possibly reaching the US mainland.
At the same time, Xi’s second term does not signal a fundamental change in approach towards the Korean Peninsula. But some signs point to China being at least in favor of steps towards improving conditions. These include both the recent diplomatic steps taken by China and South Korea to repair relations, and a shifting mood in China away from favoring the traditional “special relationship” with North Korea and towards a preference for better relations with the US and South Korea – relations which are currently hindered by the “special relationship.”
Overall, Xi Jinping will likely take a more multilateral approach to improving relations with the US and North and South Korea, which hopefully will lead to better solutions to the nuclear issue. However, as long as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear program, the potential for American military action will continue to exist, further complicating Chinese plans for a “new era” as a “leader in global diplomacy.” South Korea must also engage in both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy towards finding a solution to the North Korea nuclear problem. They must continue to take a leading role in pushing for the success of diplomatic talks between China, the US, and South Korea, as well as revive the China-Japan-South Korea talks that have been stalled since 2016.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.