In the space of just two days, the US has imposed new tariffs on Chinese goods worth $200 billion—which are set to increase from 2019—and Beijing has responded with duties on over $60 billion worth of US imports. At the same time, the third meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in on the Korean question was taking place in Pyongyang, a summit which ended Wedesday with an agreement that offers new glimmers of hope for peace between the two countries, and which could open up new ways forward in terms of denuclearization.
Even though they are not strictly connected, these recent events point toward the same underlying context: the uncertain relationship between the US and China. Trump’s sanctions represent a significant escalation compared to the earlier ones; however, according to international analysts, they should still not be considered as the worst-case scenario, and wouldn’t be even if they were to be increased.
Beijing, for its part, reacted by striking back with its own tariffs against Washington, but voices from the Chinese capital confirmed the existence of an internal debate about the correct way to respond. The initial uncertainty of Chinese officials about their response to Trump was based on their impression that the new measures taken by the US administration have a lot to do with the American midterm elections. While they hadn’t yet made their final announcement before their negotiating team departed for the US to talk about tariffs, the Chinese finally confirmed their strong retaliatory response, while also highlighting their willingness to enter into dialogue.
China has indeed demonstrated its capabilities for bolstering dialogue while acting as a mediator in the Korean question. The latest turn by Kim Jong-un, with expressions of good intentions and important agreements with South Korea on economic projects (and beyond), must be primarily a result of the meeting that the North Korean leader had with Xi Jinping a few weeks ago in Beijing. Among the promises that were put into formal terms at the summit in Pyongyang were the restoration of rail services connecting the South and North, the reduction of military personnel at the border and the possibility of more frequent reunions of families separated by the border.
After Trump’s accusations against Beijing, which, according to the White House, was responsible for the lack of progress on denuclearization, Xi met with Kim directly, demonstrating to the US that he is still the only one able to push the North Korean strongman toward a wise course of action.
Kim has obediently followed his directions, saying in Pyongyang that he was willing to visit Seoul (in which case he would be the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to travel to the South), and supporting a joint North and South Korean candidacy for hosting the 2036 Olympics.
Moon is now expected in Washington to meet with Trump, who has said he was excited by the result of the Pyongyang summit. He will have to take into account two additional factors: the trade war underway with China and the results of the Pyongyang summit regarding denuclearization.
Beijing seems to have used their influence on the Korean question to give an indirect response to the sanctions. On Wednesday, Kim said he was willing to let in outside experts into the country to verify the destruction of nuclear sites and missile platforms, but he asked in return—clearly on instructions from Beijing—for military concessions of similar import on the part of the US.
Even in Singapore, Trump made it clear that he would not budge on the issue of the US bases in South Korea. Beijing has ensured that Kim would be moving toward peace, but while pushing its own demands (the “two nos”) regarding US presence in Korea. These moves and countermoves are happening on the same stage, with both sides stepping across a minefield but managing to keep everything under control, at least for now.