Friday, July 25, 2014
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China without North Korea

NOTTINGHAM – North Korea’s third nuclear test is a game changer not only for the United States and Japan, but also for the regime’s last ally, China. The official Chinese reaction to North Korea’s latest provocation was stern: China is “strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed” to the test, and it is calling for the resumption of international talks. But China’s stance lacks meaningful bite, because its leaders fail to recognize that they no longer need to succumb to their unruly neighbor’s blackmail.

In carrying out the test, the North Koreans have once again compromised China’s national interests. The international community is again firmly focused on China’s relationship with its rogue ally, and expects that, as an emerging superpower seeking to reassure the world of its peaceful rise, China will play a constructive role. However limited China’s influence may be, the North Korean regime can sustain itself only with Chinese backing.

With North Korea’s latest nuclear test coming so quickly after its rocket launch in December, the United Nations has good reason to ask China, a permanent Security Council member, to take the diplomatic lead. It is simply not enough for China to call, as its official statement does, for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks with South Korea, China, the US, Japan, and Russia. That framework has been thoroughly discredited by North Korea’s repeated violation of past agreements.

China must warn North Korea that it will not be pressured into providing support even when Chinese national interests have been undermined. Indeed, China should make clear that, much as it would prefer North Korea to survive and prosper, it could afford to allow its erstwhile ally to implode.

Simply put, the conventional wisdom that North Korea’s collapse would be disastrous for China is misconceived. Any crisis sparked by North Korean refugees fleeing across the Chinese border would be short-lived, and international assistance would be readily available.

Likewise, China need not fear a South Korea-led unification of the peninsula. China already enjoys a smoother relationship with the South than it does with the North. Unification would occupy the Korean people for the next two decades, with Japan and the US compelled to inject a huge amount of aid to rebuild and reintegrate the North. This hardly runs counter to China’s interests as it continues its own advance toward becoming the world’s largest economy.

Indeed, if this process were to unfold, the US rationale for keeping its own military forces in South Korea would disappear. A phased reduction of the American presence would follow. If the US wished to maintain bases in Korea in the longer term, it would have to secure permission from a proud and newly united Korean nation – hardly a forgone conclusion.

Moreover, a united Korea will have inherited the North’s nuclear weapons. This will pose challenges to US-Korea relations, which should work to China’s advantage. The US will remain committed to de-nuclearizing the peninsula, while the Korean government will be tempted to retain the North’s nuclear capabilities. This strain further reduces the risk of having US troops stationed on the Korean side of China’s border.

China must also consider the implications of North Korea’s actions on its own fractious relations with Japan. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top foreign-policy priority is to force the Japanese government to acknowledge, if not accept, China’s territorial claims in the two countries’ dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Chinese naval ships have already trained their weapons on a Japanese destroyer and a Japanese naval helicopter.

In these incidents, the single most important reason for Japanese restraint has been its military’s own rules of engagement. Under current law, Japanese security forces are forbidden from firing their weapons unless clearly fired upon, which means that the country’s Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels can do little when targeted by Chinese naval radar. And revising the rules to allow Japan’s military to, say, destroy a North Korean missile before it reaches Japanese air space would increase the risk of conflict between Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces.

If the Chinese leadership can think beyond its usual default response to North Korean misbehavior – abstract condemnation followed by a call for dialogue – it can apply real pressure on the North Korean regime in full view of the international community. North Korea’s last ally should give it one last chance. And then it should be prepared to pull the plug.

Read more from our "Little Big Man" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedLeo Arouet

    La integración de Corea está más lejos de lo que uno pudiera imaginar o quisiera ver. La verdad es que una posible integración beneficiaría a Estados Unidos más que todo, y creo que China haría todo lo posible para evitar tal consecuencia. Por muy molesto que parezca Corea del Norte a los intereses de China, ésta no lo dejaría sucumbir jamás, a fuerza de que eso le cueste más su influencia, alianza y supremacía en la región.

  2. CommentedLeo Arouet

    LA integración de Corea está más lejos de lo que uno pudiera imaginar o quisiera ver. La verdad que una posible integración beneficiaría a Estados Unidos más que todo, y creo que China haría todo lo posible para evitar tal consecuencia. Por muy molesto que parezca Corea del Norte a los intereses de China, ésta no lo dejaría sucumbir jamás, a fuerza de que eso le cueste más su influencia, alianza y supremacía en la región.

  3. CommentedJeffrey Zwerner

    The main points of analysis here are impressive. However, I think it is wholly likely a united Korea would abdicate any nuclear status as a show of dedication to peace, stability, and resultant prosperity rather than challenge Japan, China, or others for a regionally-dominative position. A united Korean peninsula would not gain in any way from being a nuclear weapons state, especially considering this involves an inheritance of the history of the North's nuclear program, but instead would suffer from tense relations due to its nuclear status.

  4. CommentedJonas Gathen

    The author, alas, only sees two possibilities. Either allying with North Korea (backing the regime) or "real pressure" much sounding like a call for stricter sanctions.
    Economic assistance and humanitarian aid is not necessarily backing the regime though, at least not more than sanctions. The past decades have shown that stronger sanctions do not weaken the regime very much (looks like Cuba again, or Iran today). During the North Korean famine about 5-10% of the population died, but the regime did not change much. So when the author is saying things like "the North Korean REGIME can sustain itself only with Chinese backing" or "[China] could afford to allow its erstwhile ally to implode" the author asserts that the North Korean regime would suffer under sanctions or other constrains (and not just the North Korean people).
    I mean the point that China should reconsider its relationship with North Korea is right, but thinking that the North Korean regime will implode through a tougher stand is at best a lack of clarification and at worst a tremendously short-sighted view, that might be compromising the author's lack of knowledge of empirical data about the impact of sanctions.

  5. CommentedKen Presting

    Analyses like this are small but important steps toward a broader detente between China and the USA. One may call to mind any number of off-color jokes about elephants in love. There is little reason to believe either China or the US wishes the other ill, but there are so many things which could go wrong ...

    It is commonly asserted that the Chinese feel surrounded by US-leaning states, with N Korea being its last reliable ally. Mr. Tsang is obviously correct that Kim should no longer be considered reliable. The next question to ask is how to move from a situation in which China feels it needs such an ally, to one where China depends more on healthy cooperation in the region and with the USA.

  6. CommentedTaewon Um

    I'm highly doubtful that China really does not have to fear. If the unification is led by South Korea, the U.S. and Japan would play a certain role in the unification process. This might come in the form of financial and food assistance, and potentially by re-orienting Korea's long strategic military alliance with the U.S. and Japan.

    Given the current geopolitical situation in East Asia, when tensions are ever rising due to territorial disputes and nationalistic political/diplomatic sentiments from the hostile past, China won't just let the two Koreas unified with the South leading. China for sure will intervene in this process, fearing Korea's deeper political/military/economic integration with the U.S. China will also be very uncomfortable sharing a border with a democratic Korea(premise if the South leads the unification), which would be closer to the U.S. politically, militarily, and socially.

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