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China claims a victory on Korean nuclear issue

AT a time when much of the world is concerned about how to implement the denuclearisation agreement reached between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore, China is quietly patting itself on the back even though it wasn't party to the talks. Beijing considers the outcome a Chinese victory.

At a key but little noticed conference on foreign affairs held in Beijing 10 days after the Singapore meeting, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reported that "China has won some tough battles on the diplomatic front" since he became the Communist Party's general secretary in 2012. According to one conference participant, Mr Xi said the battles won included "moves to peacefully resolve the South China Sea issue, the Doklam standoff with India and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue".

Mr Xi's words were reported by Fu Xiaoqiang, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, who was approached by China Daily for his views for an article published on June 28.

Why does China consider the Trump-Kim accord a Chinese victory? The answer lies in the roadmap that China, along with Russia, has championed for the Korean peninsula. This "dual track approach" calls for both the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the provision of security guarantees to North Korea, which feels threatened by the United States.

This was the approach adopted in Singapore. In the Trump-Kim accord, the United States and North Korea pledged to "join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula" before North Korea committed itself "to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula."

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This is a far cry from the approach of some in the US, notably that of the hawkish diplomat John Bolton before he became national security adviser in April. All Pyongyang had to do, he said then, was to inform the US "how to pack up their nuclear weapons programme and take it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee".

The first step in this phased Chinese approach is a "freeze for freeze", with North Korea suspending missile and nuclear testing in return for a suspension in US-South Korea joint military exercises.

North Korea has not held any test in 2018 and, in Singapore, Mr Trump agreed to suspend joint American-South Korean military exercises.

So the Chinese feel vindicated that their phased approach has been adopted. It is significant that when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang last month to fill in the details of the agreement reached by the two leaders, he was rebuffed when he sought details of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and a timetable for denuclearisation.

After his departure, North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing what it called America's "gangster-like mindset". Instead, North Korea called for "phased, simultaneous actions" to realise the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

There are signs that the United States doesn't appreciate actions China is taking behind the scenes, seeking to influence Pyongyang's decisions. In early August, Mr Trump in speaking at a Florida rally, said enigmatically that "China maybe getting in our way" where North Korea was concerned.

There are indications that North Korea doesn't want to be smothered by China's embrace. Last month, Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou visited Pyongyang to meet Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. Mr Kong made clear that "the Chinese side is willing to make joint efforts with all parties to push forward the process of denuclearisation and the building of peace mechanism of the Korean Peninsula".

Mr Ri, the North Korean official, affirmed an "important consensus" between leaders of the two countries. He supported improved bilateral relations but was silent on joint efforts with China. This month, Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi also met Mr Ri while both men were in Singapore for a regional foreign ministers' meeting.

Mr Wang commended North Korea's efforts to advance denuclearisation. He promised to cooperate with all parties, including North Korea, to "jointly advance the Korean Peninsula denuclearisation and strive to realise enduring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula at an early date". Mr Ri responded that his country was ready to improve bilateral relations. North Korea, he said, will "maintain strategic communication with the Chinese comrades to ensure stability and development of the Korean Peninsula and the region".

But again, he said nothing about working jointly with China. This absence of a response to repeated Chinese offers of "joint efforts" may be a straw in the wind that North Korea is resisting Chinese efforts to work more closely together which, given their disparity in size, could well mean accepting Chinese dominance.

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