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Examining China's Take On The Trump-North Korea Summit


China, North Korea's neighbor and most important ally, was not part of Tuesday's U.S.-North Korea talks in Singapore. But the Chinese may have reason to be pretty pleased with what happened at the table. And this raises questions about how this moment could change the dynamic between the world's two biggest economies. Here to help us figure that out is Robert Daly. He has a lot of diplomatic experience with China. He's now at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Welcome back to the program - always appreciate having you.

ROBERT DALY: Good morning.

GREENE: I just want to ask you. President Trump has landed back from his trip and did what he often does. He went on Twitter. And he is declaring that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. Do you see it that way?

DALY: No, of course, there's a nuclear threat from North Korea. North Korea has nuclear weapons and probably has the means of delivering them to the continental United States. And it has not yet renounced its nuclear weapons. Therefore, yes, there is a threat.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about about China, which sort of in many ways was - that relationship with the U.S. is the elephant in the room at these talks, right? I mean, how is China seeing this summit and taking it all in?

DALY: Well, as you mentioned in the introduction, China's very pleased with the outcome. It has achieved in the short term most of its goals. It appears that the broad deal between the United States and North Korea - although this is not in the joint agreement - is what the Chinese have been advocating, namely freeze-for-freeze. That is North Korea will freeze its nuclear program, and the United States may freeze its joint exercises with South Korea. China gets this from what seems to be the agreement reached in Singapore. And China gives up nothing for it.

But more importantly, China has achieved what seems to be a slow gradual process of negotiation between North Korea and the United States, with those two countries on an equal footing. And that slow process maximizes China's influence on both sides, increases China's power at a time when China is confident that its regional power in Asia is increasing while that of the United States is declining. And so the play for time is important to China as important as freeze-for-freeze.

GREENE: Is there a reason that the Trump administration would have wanted China to be almost, as you seem to suggest, like drafting this agreement in many ways before the summit even happened. Would that have been part of the U.S. strategy - to allow China to be so involved here? Or is it really a risk?

DALY: Not necessarily. The fact that China is pleased right now does not necessarily mean that this is a bad outcome. This is still the launch of a long diplomatic process. And for now, the process of North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles and American threats of a bloody nose strike or an attack on North Korea - that process seems to have stopped for now with the diplomatic process being launched. And that is a point one. So China's happiness does not necessarily mean that this is an American failure.

GREENE: Is it possible that President Trump and the Trump administration needed China to be involved in order to get North Korea to come to the table and actually make this summit happen?

DALY: We needed China to put pressure under the maximum pressure phase of sanctions. We needed China to cut back on its trade with North Korea, which it did for a period. That seems to be increasing now. But China didn't play a major role, as far as we know, in the American position going into Singapore. China has successfully reinserted itself into the process through the two meetings between Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. We don't know what transpired in those meetings.

We do know that China, again for now, is pleased although this could all have flipped by the weekend because we may see a change in the United States' position about readiness exercises with South Korea. I think we shouldn't be too focused on the moment, the pageantry, all of the drama in Singapore. This is going to be a long and probably mutually unsatisfactory unfolding.

GREENE: Hang on a second, Robert. Are you saying that what we heard from President Trump that those joint - I think he called them war games - but joint military exercises with South Korea - the fact that President Trump said that they are going to end. You're saying you think the United States might go back on that?

DALY: Well, he said war games. But war games and general preparedness exercises are two different things. And there was some confusion about this yesterday when Vice President Pence said that readiness exercises - that joint preparedness exercises between the South Korean and American army were going to go forward. So what is a war game? What is a preparedness exercise? How will North Korea see that? This is all very unclear. And the president also will face - now that he's back in Washington - a lot of criticism, including criticism from his own party, about having taken U.S.-South Korean exercises off the table. And so this is going to continue to develop, I think, over the coming weeks.

GREENE: Well, how delicate is this? I mean, let's say President Trump faces a lot of pressure. Let's say, you know, he parses and says, well, these aren't war games, but we are going to go forward with exercises. Could that really anger North Korea? Could it anger China? And a lot of the goodwill that seemed to be built yesterday, could that start unraveling?

DALY: It depends very much on what Kim Jong Un sees as his own endgame and his own goal. If it is true that he is really interested in a limited opening up and economic development, then he is likely to put up with some American parsing. And indeed, we're going to have to put up with North Korean parsing as well as he convinces the North Korean people - the North Korean military that he hasn't given too much away. So the long-term question is what does Kim Jong Un really want. What, in the end, will the United States really settle for?

GREENE: A lot of big questions to be answered as we move farther along off the summit. Robert Daly directs the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington, D.C.

Thank you very much.

DALY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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