US-China Relations

The first handshake between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in front of a backdrop of the American and North Korean flags was surreal in many ways. Just a few months before the two leaders had been exchanging insults and threatening nuclear war, to then rush toward a summit that was cancelled at one point and rescheduled just days later. The Trump-Kim summit that took place on June 12, 2018 in Singapore may be remembered in history not just as a historic event for the United States and North Korea’s bilateral relationship, but as a consequential moment for a shifting geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia.

The joint statement signed by the two sides at the summit proclaimed that the United States and North Korea would “commit to establish new US-DPRK relations” and “join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The statement went on to declare that the summit was “an epochal event” for overcoming “decades of tensions and hostilities” and would lead to a “new future.”1 China immediately praised the outcome of the summit, applauding the two leaders for “creating a new history.”2 President Xi Jinping again reaffirmed his satisfaction with the outcome of the summit during Kim’s third visit to the Chinese capital that followed just days after his meeting with Trump.3 Beijing’s greatest concerns leading up to the Singapore summit had been ensuring that it remained front and center in shaping the developments in its neighborhood, and making certain that Kim did not pull a “Nixon and Mao” moment to lean toward the United States at the expense of China’s interests and ties with North Korea.

Chinese Views on the Summit Outcome

Beijing had been especially anxious in the weeks following the April 12 inter-Korean summit between President Moon Jae-in and Kim about whether it would be sidelined during talks to end the Korean War. The Panmunjom Declaration signed by Moon and Kim following their summit had specified that the two Koreas would pursue either trilateral meetings with the United States or quadrilateral meetings with the United States and China to work toward a peace treaty.4 Then there was speculations that Moon might join Trump and Kim in Singapore to make a trilateral declaration that could set the contours of a new framework for the Korean Peninsula.5 Beijing’s displeasure with such a notion was made evident in an article in the Global Times which declared that China was “essential to the Korean peace process” and that as a signatory to the armistice that paused the Korean War, China would have to be involved in any subsequent peace treaty.6 When Trump was asked at the press conference following the summit about whether Beijing would be included in discussions for a peace treaty, Chinese leaders were probably very relieved to hear his affirmation that Beijing would be welcomed at the table. In fact, Trump went as far as to say that he “didn’t care” whether China is legally required to be part of a treaty, and that “it would be great to have China involved” regardless of the legalities.7

In addition, Chinese leaders were undoubtedly reassured to see that there were no indications from the summit that North Korea would fundamentally shift its orientation toward the United States. In the weeks leading up to the Trump-Kim meeting, Xi hosted Kim twice in the course of just a little over a month, each time affirming China’s close relationship with North Korea and lending support to Kim’s desire for a “synchronous” and “phased” approach to denuclearization. Despite his reportedly intense personal dislike of Kim,8 Xi warmly welcomed the young North Korean leader, most likely to probe the intentions behind his diplomatic charm offensive, and to ensure that North Korea would not cut any deals that would harm China’s interests in its upcoming talks with South Korea and the United States. Kim duly pledged in return to “value and continue the DPRK-PRC relations through generations.”9 And Beijing reciprocated with warm words stressing that the “profound revolutionary friendship” between China and North Korea could not be broken by “any single event at a particular time.”10

Xi’s outreach to Kim was not in vain. At the Singapore summit, the North Koreans negotiated a freeze in US-ROK military exercises that China had long advocated should be a reciprocal step for North Korea’s suspension of its nuclear and missile tests. And North Korea also received a commitment from the United States to work toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which will be interpreted by the North Korean and Chinese sides to include removing various aspects of the US military presence on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea takes steps to curtail its nuclear program. Furthermore, there were no indications whatsoever that Washington and Pyongyang had even broached the subject of using their new relationship to balance against China. In fact, exploring such an idea did not seemed to have occurred to Trump given his repeated expressions that China and South Korea would be the primary players in North Korea’s future because “it’s their neighborhood.”11

American Views on the Summit Outcome

Trump walked away from his summit with Kim elated with the results. He announced at the press conference following the summit that he had gotten to know Kim very well and that the two were “ready to write a new chapter.” He tweeted upon his arrival back from Singapore that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office.”

In contrast to the positive assessments in Beijing and by Trump, most analysts in the United States were decidedly disappointed with the results. A vast majority were dismayed that the summit did not result in a concrete pledge, let alone a timeline or roadmap, from North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In fact, the language in the Trump-Kim joint statement fell short of North Korea’s pledge in the September 19, 2005 joint statement of the Six-Party Talks, which committed it to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”12 While many had expressed concerns with the unconventional approach of launching negotiations with a presidential summit instead of beginning with working-level negotiations to build up to a summit, the hope had been this unconventional approach would pay off given the incredibly tough task of securing North Korea’s explicit pledge to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. It was thought that perhaps this was a deal that could only be made between the two heads of state. These hopes were dashed, however, when the joint statement simply reaffirmed North Korea’s existing pledge about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Many American observers were also taken aback by the fact that the president of the United States had mirrored North Korea’s language by calling US-ROK military exercises “provocative war games,” when the United States and South Korea have long maintained joint military exercises are legitimate training endeavors necessary for defensive purposes. In addition, Trump’s remarks about saving a “tremendous amount of money” by stopping military exercises and wanting to pull US troops at some point from the Korean Peninsula raised concerns about how his words would impact the credibility of the United States’ commitments to its allies. Even more troubling was the fact that Pentagon officials, along with the South Koreans and Japanese, did not seemed to have been thoroughly consulted or briefed before such a critical commitment was made.13 Only after a week of scrambling on how to interpret Trump’s intent was it announced that the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise scheduled for this August, which normally involves around 17,500 US troops, 50,000 South Korean troops, as well as other allied participants would be cancelled. And US officials are still working to determine how Trump’s promise to stop “war games” will be put into practice beyond canceling the August exercise.14

The Challenges Ahead

Despite the encouraging fact that Washington and Pyongyang are now talking and not heading toward a nuclear war, and the positive statements that have been made by American, Chinese, North Korean, and South Korean officials on the outcome of the summit, a “new future” is not just around the corner. Trump’s promise to end joint US-ROK “war games” and to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and the joint statement that committed both sides to work toward a new peace without specifying a clear timeline or roadmap to this outcome will certainly run into complications and raise contentious issues not just between the United States and North Korea, but also between the United States and China. Some of the subjects that will most likely surface in the coming months and years include the US presence on the Korean Peninsula and related issues such as theater missile defense, along with calibrating economic sanctions, and negotiating a peace treaty to end the Korean War—all of which are additional to the challenge of ensuring North Korean progress on denuclearization.

Chinese Views on the US Military Presence in East Asia and Demands to Withdraw Capabilities

Now that the United States has officially expressed a willingness to work toward a new peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, China and North Korea will begin pressing for concrete steps by the United States to reduce its presence on the Korean Peninsula and in the general region as North Korea begins to take steps toward denuclearization. Beijing has historically held mixed views on the US presence and alliance network in East Asia. In the early days of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong’s strategic decision to align China with the Soviet Union put Beijing and Washington in opposite camps in the beginning of the Cold War and would bring the two sides to fight directly against each other during the Korean War. China’s objections to the US presence in East Asia and its alliance network were routinely expressed in the years leading to rapprochement, with Beijing expressing concern about the US-Japan alliance in particular. Chinese leaders believed the alliance was strengthening Japan and encouraging it to play a larger role in the East Asian region, which was true in many regards. In fact, Beijing was quite convinced that Japan would be groomed by the United States to eventually exert influence over Taiwan, which Japan had colonized in the past.

From 1971 onwards, however, Nixon and Kissinger’s exchanges with Mao and Zhou Enlai fostered a new relationship between the two sides and helped shift Chinese views of the US alliance network in East Asia. During their talks with the Chinese, Nixon and Kissinger worked hard to persuade their counterparts the US presence in their neighborhood and especially its alliance with Japan were actually favorable for China’s interests. They reasoned that the US-Japan defense relationship restrained rather than empowered Japan, and they ensured Mao and Zhou that as long as the United States was partnered with Japan, the latter would not return to “militarism” and would not be allowed to “move into” Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula, as it had in the past.15

There is evidence that this logic about the utility of US alliances for China’s regional interests stuck with the Chinese and is still tacitly acknowledged, although to a lesser degree than during the early days of rapprochement. Today Chinese strategists can understand that a Japan or South Korea that is not allied with the United States but still threatened by North Korea (as well as China) would move to acquire more arms and perhaps even their own nuclear weapons, which would not be in China’s strategic interests. Nonetheless, the Chinese are no longer as tolerant and much less sanguine of the US presence in East Asia. Chinese leaders routinely protest US efforts to “contain” China, and a majority of Chinese citizens are also convinced that the United States actively seeks to block China’s rise.16 The last defense white paper released by Beijing in 2015 also clearly cites the United States’ enhancements of its military presence and alliances in the region as an issue of “grave concern.”17

Chinese leaders have especially bristled in recent years over the US expansion of theater missile defense in its neighborhood, and the implications this system has for China’s ability to assert its claims over Taiwan and disputed territories in the South China Sea. Beijing is particularly wary of growing US missile defense capabilities that can negate its relatively small nuclear arsenal and theoretically embolden the United States to do as it wishes in the Asia Pacific, without having to worry about escalating up to a nuclear war with China. Because China’s nuclear doctrine is premised on the concept of maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrent with a second-strike capability, Chinese strategists insist that the expansion of US missile defense forces China to enhance their own retaliatory-strike capabilities instead of focusing on disarmament.

Beijing’s opposition to theater missile defense was most evident in its strident opposition to the deployment of a US anti-missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) on ROK territory. The controversy over THAAD first surfaced in 2014 when General Curtis Scaparrotti, then commander of US Forces Korea, recommended the system be deployed to South Korean territory to defend against North Korea’s short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Despite US and South Korean assurances that the system would be purely configured to defend against North Korean threats, Beijing protested that THAAD’s radar could be used to monitor Chinese airspace and would expand a US system designed to contain China.

Xi and his deputies set about lobbying the South Korean leadership to drop the plan. For instance, in March 2015 Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao visited Seoul and asked his South Korean counterpart to “attach importance to China’s concerns and interests.” In February 2016, China’s ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, warned leaders of the Minjoo Party that the two nation’s ties could be “destroyed in an instant” due to THAAD.18 Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket test just one month later, South Korea and the United States announced they would begin formal discussions on THAAD. By July 8, they had officially agreed to deploy the system in South Korean territory.

After Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD, Beijing unleashed extensive economic retaliation against its neighbor, banning group tours to South Korea, barring Korean celebrities and entertainment companies from operating inside China, and increasing barriers for Korean businesses that rely on the Chinese market.19 Despite the economic costs, South Korea upheld its commitment to accept THAAD on its territory, even with a change of leadership from a conservative to a progressive administration, following President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and the election of Moon. China’s relationship with South Korea remained strained until late 2017, when Beijing and Seoul declared they would seek a “new start” in bilateral relations with a series of high-level meetings, including one between Xi and Moon. During this process, according to Chinese reports, the South Koreans assured Beijing that they would not join the US missile defense system nor deploy additional THAAD batteries.20 These positions, however, were not explicitly denied nor acknowledged by the South Korean side.21

South Korea’s agreement to deploy THAAD on its territory and its tolerance of Chinese economic retaliation as a consequence all took place while North Korea was rapidly conducting nuclear and missile tests. Now that Pyongyang has declared a pause in its nuclear and missile testing, expressed its willingness to roll back its nuclear program, and ultimately signed a statement with the United States that pledges to seek a new peace for the Korean Peninsula, the United States will face growing pressure from both Beijing as well as progressive factions within South Korea to, at a minimum, suspend any further deployments of US missile defense assets, and most likely to remove existing assets. Furthermore, as Pyongyang begins to dismantle parts of its nuclear program, Beijing will most likely point to the US commitment to building a peace regime to protest general expansion of its theater missile capabilities in East Asia including deploying more ballistic missile defense-capable warships and integrating theater missile defense with national missile defense capabilities.22

The United States, however, is unlikely to accept these demands given growing concerns in Washington about China’s military expansion and its assertive intentions. Trump could conceivably order the removal of THAAD from South Korea given his willingness to cancel military exercises, and such a development would be a big win for China. But it is hard to imagine that the United States will be willing to go any further to reduce its theater missile defense capabilities, and thus this issue will surface and remain a point of contention between Washington and Beijing as negotiations over the Korean Peninsula progress.

The Struggle Over Sanctions

In the aftermath of the Singapore summit, Trump and other US officials have repeatedly reiterated that the economic sanctions on North Korea will not come off until Pyongyang takes significant steps to denuclearize. Despite these promises, enforcing existing sanctions and even keeping them in place will be difficult without China’s active and willing cooperation. China is the critical player in any sanctions efforts given the fact that it is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade, and provides North Korea with its critical commodities, including oil and steel products. Finally, China basically serves as North Korea’s door to the outside world, with North Korea’s legal and illegal networks that ensure its cash flow running through China at some point and aided by opportunistic Chinese intermediaries.

The economic portion of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign only worked in 2017 and early 2018 because China was willing to lend its support. While Beijing signed onto increasingly harsh sanctions in 2017, including banning North Korean coal exports, shutting down North Korean businesses and Chinese-North Korean joint ventures operating within China, and reducing North Korea’s oil imports, it cooperated largely to prevent the United States from turning to more extreme measures in the face of North Korean intransigence. Now that Kim has shown enthusiasm for negotiations and launched a diplomatic charm offensive, Beijing has already begun to call for relaxing sanctions. The levers of economic pressure that could have been used to ensure Kim stays on track with denuclearization have essentially diminished as a result. For instance, immediately after the Singapore summit a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson called on the Security Council to start lifting sanctions. The following week, the same spokesperson seconded Russia’s call for all unilateral sanctions, i.e. those not imposed by the UN Security Council, to be immediately abandoned.23

Trump’s signature on a declaration that promised the United States would seek a "new relationship" with North Korea that was not made conditional on a specific timeline or pledge regarding denuclearization has further reduced sanctions as a realistic source of leverage. By agreeing to such a statement, he essentially green-lighted South Korean and Chinese economic cooperation with North Korea to move forward. In fact, there are already grand plans being made for building economic corridors and industrial zones that link China, North Korea, and South Korea, along with Russia to facilitate trade and development.24 Regardless of US insistence and South Korea’s official confirmation that sanctions will remain in place to ensure that North Korea keep its word on denuclearization, exerting economic pressure will be difficult, if not impossible, with the eagerness for economic engagement with North Korea in Seoul and Beijing.

Drafting a Peace Treaty and Addressing Human Rights Issues

All four parties—North and South Korea, China and the United States—will begin negotiations presumably this year to draft a peace treaty to replace the armistice, as expressed by Moon and Kim in the Panmunjom Declaration. Many difficult issues could arise during these negotiations, including modifying the rationale for the US-ROK alliance, clarifying operational control over South Korea’s forces during wartime which currently rests with the Combined Forces Command, as well as addressing human rights issues in North Korea. The first of these two will have to be handled primarily between the United States and South Korea. But the issue of human rights will raise sensitivities among all of the parties, including Beijing.

Once negotiations for a peace treaty begin, it is highly likely that the United States Congress will get involved by holding hearings, requesting reports, and generally weighing in on the requirements any peace treaty must meet. Congress could also pass legislation to ensure it has the right to review any agreement, as it did during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal.25 Congress will also undoubtedly demand that North Korea make commitments to improve its human rights record and will most likely want to insert such language into the treaty. In fact, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 already mandates that the president must investigate and sanction North Korean entities that engage in human rights violations. This law also stipulates that the suspension of any sanctions cannot occur without North Korean progress on complying with UN Security Council resolutions, repatriating abducted citizens of foreign countries, improving conditions in prison camps, and adopting internationally recognized standards for the distribution of humanitarian aid.26 Permanent termination of sanctions requires the president to certify to Congress that North Korea has made significant progress on “releasing all political prisoners,” “ceasing its censorship of peaceful political activity” and “establishing an open, transparent, and representative society,” in addition to “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantling all of its nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological weapons programs.”27 Obviously, these are high aspirations as opposed to absolute barriers that stand in the way of a peace treaty, but members of Congress will be sure to push along these lines.

Beijing, in contrast, will side with Pyongyang to push against explicit language or deliverables on human rights issues. Since its founding, Chinese leaders have promoted the principle of non-interference, which stipulates that states have the right to govern as they wish inside their own borders, and no foreign government should interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. China has been criticized for not living up to its principles throughout history, and especially in recent years with reports of Chinese “sharp power” and influence campaigns in foreign countries.28 But regardless of its own track record, Beijing is insistent on this principle for self-interested reasons—namely its desire to defend its system which gives the Chinese Communist Party a monopoly over power. Chinese leaders often express that China’s “guoqing” or unique situation, culture, and history demand its one-party system, and insist that all states should be free to design domestic systems that suit their own unique conditions. In addition, Chinese leaders also like to express that the “right to subsistence,” for citizens to “eat their fill and dress warmly” is the most important human right that should not be jeopardized by relaxing political control which could bring “social turmoil.”29

Given its views, Beijing will stand by Kim in his quest to retain a firm grip over his country and will laud him for taking steps toward economic development and improving his people’s welfare. China’s presence in the negotiations will thus serve as a counterweight to pressure from the United States for political reform and progress on human rights issues to get to a peace treaty. This conflict over values, or essentially the American and Chinese models, will soon be playing out on the Korean Peninsula.


The three challenges discussed in this article—questions about the US presence in East Asia and pressures to roll back its theater missile defense assets in South Korea and beyond; divergence on the appetite for sanctions while negotiating a peace treaty; and navigating the issue of human rights in North Korea—will test relations especially between the United States and China as the four parties engage in negotiations to hammer out the details in the Singapore Statement, as well as the Panmunjom Declaration. The United States and China’s broader power struggle will loom in the background, further complicating the negotiations. Given these challenges, leaders on all sides will face the tall order of ensuring the diplomatic track remains viable in the months and years to come.

1. “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” The White House, June 12, 2018,

2. Eli Meixler, “China Praises Summit Between President Trump and Kim Jong Un For ‘Creating a New History,’” Time, June 12, 2018,

3. “Xi Jinping meets Kim Jong Un in Beijing,” Xinhua News Agency, June 20, 2018,

4. “READ: Full declaration of North and South Korean summit,” CNN, April 28, 2018,

5. “South Korea’s Moon Jae In might join Trump, Kim in Singapore for 3-way summit: Official,” The Straits Times, May 28, 2018,

6. Liu Xin, “China essential to Korean peace process,” Global Times, June 5, 2018,

7. “Press Conference by President Trump,” The White House, June 12, 2018,

8. Jon Sharman, “North Korea: China’s Xi Jinping ‘does not like Kim Jong-un at all’ but will tolerate him, says former US ambassador,” The Independent, August 30, 2017,

9. “Kim says China visit is ‘solemn duty’, invites Xi: KCNA,” The Korea Herald, March 28, 2018,

10. “Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un hold talks in Beijing,” Xinhua News Agency, March 28, 2018,

11. “Trump says South Korea, China and Japan responsible for North Korea’s economic aid,” Hankyoreh, June 4, 2018,

12. “Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks, Beijing, 19 September 2005,” US Department of State,

13. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon and Seoul Surprised by Trump Pledge to Halt Military Exercises,” The New York Times, June 12, 2018,

14. Barbara Starr, “Pentagon says it’s ‘suspended all planning’ for military exercise with South Korea,” CNN, June 18, 2018,

15. Patricia M. Kim, “Persuasion in Diplomacy: Evidence from U.S.-China Relations,” unpublished manuscript.

16. Richard Wike, “6 facts about how Americans and Chinese see each other,” Pew Research Center, March 30, 2016,

17. “China’s Military Strategy (full text),” The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, May 27, 2015,

18. Shin Hyon-hee, “China Envoy Warns of ‘Destruction’ of Ties Due to THAAD,” The Korea Herald, February 23, 2016.

19. Tom Hancock and Wang Xueqiao, “South Korean Consumer Groups Bear Brunt of THAAD Ire,” Financial Times, August 20, 2017.

20. “2017年10月31日外交部发言人华春莹主持例行记者会,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Switzerland, October 31, 2017,

21. Charlotte Gao, “China Once Again Urges South Korea to ‘Properly Handle’ THAAD Issue,” The Diplomat, November 24, 2017,

22. Eric Heginbotham et al. China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States. (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND Corporation, 2017),, see pp. 60-65

23. “In talks with China’s Xi, Kim reiterates call for step-by-step denuclearization process,” The Japan Times, June 20, 2018,

24. Tara Francis Chan, “Kim Jong Un received a USB drive from South Korea’s president with a blueprint for connecting North Korea with the world,” The Business Insider, May 6, 2018,

25. Daniel Wertz, “Making a deal with North Korea: what role for the U.S. Congress?” NK News, May 28, 2018,

26. “H.R.757 – North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016,”

27. See:; and Daniel Wertz, “Making a deal with North Korea: what role for the U.S. Congress?”

28. Xuan Loc Doan, “China’s non-interference policy challenged as mere rhetoric,” Asia Times, December 17, 2017,

29. “The Right to Subsistence–The Foremost Human Right The Chinese People Long Fight for,”,