In the ancient Chinese military strategy classic, Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong, the great Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong of the 7th century famously ruminated that, “In war, we prefer the position of the host to that of the guest.”
In essence, Emperor Taizong’s pithy statement sums up China’s long-standing strategic approach toward the decades-long military standoff on the Korean Peninsula, i.e. to play the “host” and to make the U.S. and its allies play the “guest.”
In Chinese strategic parlance, playing “host” means maintaining the capability to control the process and direction of the conflict by creating dependency, both in North Korea as China’s proxy, and in the United States as China’s enemy, on Beijing’s own terms and the degree to which the Chinese leadership is willing to cooperate with the U.S. to solve the North Korean problem.
The historical fallout of this Chinese strategy on the Korean Peninsula, developed since the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, has always been China playing the host of the epic conflict while the U.S.-led coalition has been forced to play the guest by fundamentally relying on China’s crucial moves, passively reacting to initiatives taken by China.
China’s participation in the Korean War was the most decisive factor in deciding the current geopolitical and geostrategic status quo on the Korean Peninsula. In the ensuing decades since the ceasefire in 1953, China was the most generous source of political, economic, and military support for the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang. Even when China itself was on the verge of economic ruin under Mao Zedong’s catastrophic rule, Beijing never relinquished the vital economic and military support to Pyongyang to keep its proxy regime in Pyongyang in operation. Pyongyang’s dependency on Beijing was so deep that in the deadly internecine fight for world-wide leadership of the communist movement between the Soviet Union and China, North Korea was one of the only two Stalinist regimes—the other was Albania—that did not overtly abandon Beijing for Moscow, unlike a host of other Moscow proxies such as Cuba and Vietnam. The cliché in China for decades has been that Beijing keeps North Korea as close as the distance between “lips and teeth.”
In the aftermath of the Cold War, North Korea was stunned by the profound perfidy of China’s 1992 diplomatic recognition of South Korea, Pyongyang’s sworn enemy. In response, Pyongyang embarked on the dangerous path of developing nuclear weapons, in part to reduce its strategic dependency on Beijing—for a similar reason Mao Zedong had also foolhardily pursued his own nuclear ambitions in the late 1950s in order to reduce China’s strategic and nuclear dependency on Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, which Mao believed had turned from hardcore Marxism and Leninism to “revisionism.”
Though China is displeased with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, Beijing has nevertheless done little to stop it because North Korea’s nuclear ambition has simultaneously created a dialectical twist in Beijing’s favor: Kim’s costly nuclear projects are depleting his country’s limited economic and financial resources, giving China an unusual opportunity to deepen Pyongyang’s dependency on Beijing’s enormous economic and financial assistance for regime survival. As a result, for nearly three decades now, China’s “host” role in the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula has become even more pronounced as Beijing has become the go-to place for the U.S. and its allies to solve the North Korean problem, since China holds the key to Pyongyang’s economic survival, thus exerting a preponderant influence over North Korea.
China has used its influence over North Korea as its most powerful leverage against the U.S. and its allies over a host of other profound issues including human rights, regional and global security, market and capital access, and technological transfers. Since the George H. W. Bush administration, five American presidents in a span of nearly three decades have been forced to be Beijing’s “guest” as China plays the “host” in ultimately deciding the course and menu for a party of six nations, known as the Six-Party Talks, a prolonged and non-productive phony “dialogue” with Pyongyang on denuclearization in North Korea to which China has been overtly and covertly supplying the overwhelming majority of its energy, food, and other vital needs, with North Korea’s nuclear projects making critical progress along the way, directly threatening the U.S. homeland.
All this began to change swiftly soon after Donald Trump became America’s president.
As a seasoned Manhattan real estate mogul, a profession which has honed his gutter-fighting gamesmanship, President Trump understands the root of the North Korean conundrum, and he has taken the bold initiative of direct negotiation with Pyongyang without China as the host. By cajoling and forcing China to implement UN sanctions on Pyongyang, the U.S. closed the loopholes that have kept the U.S. losing leverage to Beijing. By promising economic prosperity to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization, President Trump not only reduced North Korea’s dependency on China, but he also might have saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. From now on, the American president can directly negotiate with Pyongyang without Beijing playing a decisive role in the middle.
Thus, when President Trump and Kim Jong-un went to Singapore last week to meet face to face in the climactic act of a nuclear drama, the biggest loser was Beijing, as China’s host role as the ultimate and manipulative middle-man in the Korean crisis was gone instantly. President Trump has miraculously reversed the roles of host and guest in a matter of several months. It is now the U.S. president who is playing the host on the Korean issue, and China has been mercilessly relegated to the role of a far less relevant guest.
Even Emperor Taizong would have been amused by the swiftness of the role reversal.