Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review has published a perplexing article claiming that “China startled by Trump’s hotline to Kim“. While much of the article is subsequently devoted to a timeline of events that led to the current state of the Korean peace process, the subtext of the piece implies that China feels threatened by the apparently good relationship that has been developed between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, in spite of spending much of the last year insulting one another in public statements.
The article goes on to state, “Little did Xi know that Trump had given Kim his phone number and was planning for further direct communication. A hotline between Washington and Pyongyang inevitably alters the balance of power between the U.S. and China. Trump may feel that China is no longer indispensable in negotiations with North Korea. He can talk directly. This was not on Xi’s radar“.
This narrative runs contrary to the equally false one that is being peddled by liberal American mainstream media which suggests that both China and the DPRK made a fool of Trump during the prelude and course of the Singapore Summit. But while major US media outlets suggest a zero-sum win for China, Japan’s Nikkei is suggesting that Trump has bested China and has Beijing effectively running scared after developing an historic rapprochement with the DPRK and Kim Jong-un personally.
Both of these false narratives are instructive as a reflection of the most paranoid analysis in each respective country. While many Americans in both major parties are increasingly scapegoating China for the economic failures of recent generations of America’s industrial workforce, the Singapore Summit allowed the liberal mainstream media to seize on the atmosphere of Sinophobia in the United States that tends to be dominated by protectionists and economic ultra-nationalists. The narrative of both the anti-peace process liberals and the anti-free trade nationalists is one that boils down to: “China is making the US seem impotent on the world’s stage and markets”.
By contrast, the relative speed of the Korean peace process has caught many in Japan off-guard. While officially Tokyo has welcomed the atmosphere of peace and cooperation in Korea, many are now waking up to the fact that Japan’s semi-constitutional if not unconstitutional military build-up designed to frighten the DPRK, is now effectively pointless. Because of this, many in Japan want to seize on a mythical narrative that somehow the US will turn the DPRK into a second South Korea that will join Japan in an otherwise shrinking family of overtly pro-American Asian powers. This narrative helps console Japan for its needless and possibly illegal anti-DPRK military buildup by trying to make it seems as though militarisation played a role in “Making the DPRK American Again”.
Both of these narratives are factually untrue, but moreover they derive from either an ignorant or international misinterpretation of China’s clear geopolitical strategy and attitude. China has pushed for the Korean process more actively than any of the superpowers. China is currently enjoying a relationship with Seoul that is going through a historic high point in terms of both diplomatic cooperation and bilateral trade. China has likewise welcomed a cessation of militarism on both sides of the 38th parallel and is far more happy to see a Korean peninsula edge closer to One Belt–One Road than to a nuclear war on China’s border.
China’s attitude towards peace is elegantly simple. China realises that de-escalation in historic tensions is not only good for ordinary human beings but is good for the win-win model of global commerce and cooperation. Furthermore, China does not operate on the basis of geopolitical threats nor does Beijing succumb to being threatened. China for example does not see US allies in north east Asia as threats but as opportunities. If the opposite were the case, the ever warming relations between Beijing and Seoul would not be consolidating as they are.
Furthermore, the Asian country that is most openly hostile to China is one that China has approached with a perpetually open door. India under Premier Narendra Modi has become ever more obstructionist in its desire to undermine the One Belt–One Road initiative while New Delhi’s Sinophobic rhetoric is among the most virulent in the world. In spite of this, President Xi recently met with Modi as part of the long standing policy of China to improve relations with India on the basis of dialogue and nonaggression, even in the face of open provocations.
China takes a similar approach to disputes with the US. While China is capable of militarily defending its interests and has made this fact clear, China also seeks to avoid any and all needless confrontation with the US and its partners. Because of this, it is absurd to state that somehow President Xi is personally alarmed at the fact that Kim Jong-un speaks with Donald Trump on a newly opened phone-line. If anything President Xi will be pleased that former adversaries are engaged in healthier relations. Likewise, China’s economic model allows not only for friendly economic competition on an international level, but China’s plans to further open its economy to new inflows of goods and capital from abroad is a further symptom of a confident Chinese nation whose superpower status is projected through collective cooperation rather than through hegemonic unilateralism.
China supports peace and free trade throughout the world while rejecting provocations that threaten its own interests no matter where they drive. This straightforward method of international conduct seems to perplex some Japanese and American journalists and political figures who cannot come to grips with foreign policy being conducted on a win-win basis.
While the US and Japan seek to justify their own versions of a zero-sum mentality in an age where the world is gradually moving towards openness and multilateralism, they have resorted to projecting their own fears for the future onto a Chinese government and nation that refuses to look back.