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How the US-Pyongyang hotline excludes China



ANALYSIS / OPINION:

The recent visit of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un to Beijing last week can not hide the fact that China, once the main link between Washington and Pyongyang, is at risk of being largely left out. The White House has undermined China's leverage by establishing a direct telephone line – a virtual hotline – for Kim.

In fact, President Donald Trump effectively eliminated the mediator by directing Pyongyang into a nuclear and peace agreement

Beijing, which sees North Korea as a strategic buffer against the US military presence in South Korea, has grounds for distrust Kim's overtures to America and the Trump government's direct negotiations with Pyongyang. At the center of Trump's diplomacy in North Korea is the effort to marginalize China's regional role.

North Korea is China's only formal military ally. A 1

961 Friendship Treaty commits China and North Korea to helping each other when attacked. But when bilateral relations increased since the Kim seizure of power in late 2011, Chinese analysts criticized the pact as outdated.

Today, Beijing fears being marginalized in its own strategic backyard. It is worrying that his alien alien, North Korea, just as he opposed the Soviet Union after the Nixon-Kissinger "opening" in the early 1970s, could similarly change loyalty. Mr. Kim, however, seems more interested in achieving a limited goal – realigning his foreign policy with fences with the US to reduce North Korea's economic and security dependence on its millennial rival China.

The Road to North Korea Denuclearization promises to be long and difficult. However, the Trump administration has exacerbated China's concerns by bypassing Beijing and establishing direct links with Pyongyang

. However, Trump's critics have claimed that his epic summit with Mr. Kim is a diplomatic stroke of luck for China. They also accused Mr Trump of making substantial concessions to secure vague obligations without clear deadlines. The only concession made by Mr. Trump – the suspension of US war games with South Korea as a gesture of good faith – is easily reversible if the negotiations do not bring progress. Regular military training has not been stopped.

On Mr. Trump's credit, he has correctly described as "very provocative" the US-led war games that use live fire drills to simulate a major North Korean invasion each spring. Critics are upset that he alleged that these war games are routinely military exercises and defensive.

Of course, Beijing last September in the so-called "Freeze for Freeze" formula suspended the US war games in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. However, it was Kim who undermined the Chinese proposal by unilaterally declaring a trial moratorium in April without a mutual US license.

Under Barack Obama, Washington helped end Myanmar's international isolation while the US President paid a historic visit to the district in 2012 – a journey that led Myanmar to reduce its dependence on China. Now, Mr. Trump encourages another isolated, China-dependent state, North Korea, to end its international pariah status.

North Korea, like Myanmar, is rich in resources. However, North Korea has strong nuclear and missile capabilities. North Korea is also a homogeneous and regulated society, in contrast to the ethnically diverse Myanmar, the seat of the world's longest raging civil war.

Mr. Trump is right that at this stage, the transformation of US-North Korean relations means more than denuclearization. If the West encourages Kim's efforts to modernize the North Korean economy, as it supported China's economic rise, it will help temper Pyongyang's behavior. Economic engagement can accomplish much more than economic sanctions that counterproductively accelerated North Korea's nuclear and missile advance.

Instead of liberating the North Korean government from the clutches of China, US policy helped under Trump's predecessors Beijing to play the North Korea card against America and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea. Beijing also tried to line up the Trump-led US along North Korea until Washington made direct contact with Pyongyang.

Alarmed by Washington's diplomatic contact with Pyongyang, China's Xi Jinping has received Mr. Kim three times over the last three months. Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump, preparing for a trade dispute, both turn to Mr. Kim. But Mr. Trump's diplomacy and direct connection with Mr. Kim – who is dismayed by his country's dependence on China and Beijing's support for United Nations sanctions against North Korea – has given Mr. Xi leverage on bilateral issues.

Even before Mr. Als Trump took office, a turnaround in North Korean politics had become inevitable, and the sanction approach proved a conspicuous failure as he encouraged Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities. Mr. Trump's policy of "Santifications with Engagement" has sought to address this imperative by exploiting Pyongyang's desire to open frozen relations with America and to exploit the growing tension in relations between China and North Korea.

The New Policy Has Launched a Process Even if this does not clear the way for North Korea's disarmament, it could undermine long-term Chinese interests. In fact, by limiting China's regional power and role, Trump's direct diplomacy promises a positive change in Northeast Asian geopolitics.

• Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including "Water: Asia's New Battleground."

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