New Delhi: There has been an extraordinary turnaround in the North Korean crisis situation and China has displayed masterful diplomacy in enabling this. Kim Jong-un not only travelled to China and dramatically surfaced in a summit with fellow strongman Xi Jinping; he also committed to “denuclearization” according to a statement put out by the Chinese official media. Significantly, North Korea has offered no comment on the meeting of the two leaders. In days ahead, something may come. Most strikingly, China has inserted itself into the North Korean question just when it appeared to be sidelined with the United States and North Korea headed for bilateral talks. Uncannily, history is repeating itself, with China taking the place of the former Soviet Union which manipulated from behind the scenes the ceasefire talks of the Korean War more than sixty-five years ago.

The Korean War was in its second calendar year when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed in principle for a negotiated termination of the conflict. Confusion remains to this day of the extent of Soviet involvement in the war although North Korea would not have aggressed without Joseph Stalin’s consent. It seems also the case that the Chinese intervention when General Douglas MacArthur’s forces headed towards the Yalu was planned and permitted by Stalin. Technically, however, the Soviet Union was not at war with the multinational forces led by the United States. It had no troops on the ground. The Chinese and the North Koreans of course were deployed in mass. Soviet Russia informed the United States that it would have to open negotiations with North Korea and China. Presumably, Stalin had instructed the Chinese and North Korean leaderships to join the ceasefire negotiations. It would take another two years for the armistice agreement to be reached during which the tide of battle turned one way or another. It is generally agreed that Stalin was in no hurry for an agreement as long as he was assured that the war would be limited to the peninsula and not reach Japan and Taiwan. The informal agreement with the United States ensured that. Something similar is happening now except that China has replaced the Soviet Union as the ultimate arbiter of North Korea’s fate.

North Korea has by no means meekly surrendered. On the basis of past behaviour, including nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches implicitly threatening the United States, it is safe to conclude that Kim has conditionally agreed to denuclearization. North Korea would likely move to abandon nuclear weapons only if US forces leave South Korea and there is a structured dialogue for the reunification of the peninsula. This entirely meets Chinese interests. China would indeed also press for the removal of THAAD from South Korea once North Korean denuclearization is guaranteed. Removal of US troops from South Korea would assuage a long-standing Chinese concern of American domination on the frontiers of North Korea. Russia shares a tiny border with North Korea up north and would also welcome the evacuation of US forces.

Nevertheless, much also depends on the tradeoffs the United States is willing to make in return for North Korean denuclearization. It would almost certainly not agree to troops withdrawal at the outset or indeed for a long time and the same posture would apply to THAAD. It would need ironclad guarantees against a repetition of North Korean aggression in which China would have to be a party. The apprehensions of Japan in a situation of American evacuation from South Korea would also have to be considered beyond the fact that Japan would have to host the evacuated troops till the Korean peninsula stabilizes. In all this, China would play a major role.

Some weeks ago, it appeared that China had lost control of the North Korean crisis. There were also reports that North Korea was rebelling against China’s support of harsh UN sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime. From the jaws of defeat, China has extracted victory. This is a huge plus for Xi Jinping and should settle the furore for now about his power grab for life. The Soviet Union was rarely known for brilliant diplomacy. It was too insecure for much of its revolutionary life to trust to the vagaries of diplomacy. The Korean War counted as an exception and not without reason. The North Korean regime was in its infancy and China equally was a new and rather raw revolutionary power. Their ideological, material and military dependence on the Soviet Union was unqualified. Communist Russia was also ideologically nonpareil. This is not the situation today for China. It is able to hold its own despite the retreat of communist ideology worldwide and uses a mixture of geopolitical and geo-economic might to transform the external environment to its favour. This is the hallmark of a Great Power. China is slowly revealing itself in all its awesomeness.

Editor’s Note: While India cannot and should not challenge China geopolitically, it must do everything to level with China in trade and commerce. China must not be permitted to close its market to Indian products while flooding the country with cheap exports. Since squaring the trade deficit will take longer than the average life of a government, a political consensus must be reached on this between the ruling side and the opposition. The sooner this consensus is reached (with no side taking credit) the better. India has to protect its economic interests.