The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

China and the NoKos

For the past three decades the diplomatic elites in Washinton have told us that China is the key to controlling the aggressive ambitions of North Korea. I accepted that conventional wisdom and have cited it in a number of posts over the years. But I'm beginning to think that the entire 'China-is-the-key-to-North Korea' meme is wrong—that the NoKos crazy behavior benefits China. Like many ideas emanating from our diplomatic elite, our reliance on China to control NoKo is doomed to failure.

In a fascinating article on this subject, Abram Shulsky and Lewis Libby write:
Three decades of failure should lead us at least to question the conventional wisdom [of the 'China is the key to North Korea'meme]. Perhaps the true Chinese attitude toward the North Korean nuclear program is more favorable than appears. It might do well to reflect on the phrase “barbarian handlers” – that is, Chinese official or unofficial representatives whose job it is to shape foreigners’ perceptions of China.

The conventional wisdom ignores the geo-strategic benefits that China derives from the North Korean nuclear program. The prospect of North Korean nuclear weapons has distracted U.S. attention in Asia since the Clinton Administration, and has rendered the U.S. a supplicant to China, soliciting its help.

This pays off for China in many ways. As we have seen, the Trump administration has withheld its fire on trade and financial issues as a result. The Bush and Obama Administrations welcomed Beijing convening leading nations in multi-party talks, thus enhancing China’s regional and diplomatic prestige. China may not unreasonably believe that all this gives it a freer hand to act aggressively in other arenas, such as China’s unlawful efforts to seize control of the South China Sea ...

If China truly wanted to press North Korea to end its nuclear program, such measures would be on its agenda. But there is no indication China is thinking along these lines.

If, on the other hand, China actually regards the North Korean nuclear program as geopolitically advantageous, then its current policy makes good sense. By keeping the U.S. hoping that the next set of sanctions will do the trick, China buys time for the other gains it reaps.

All this would suggest the U.S. adopt a course less tolerant of China’s role. Indeed, the Trump Administration has hinted at stronger measures.

None of this proves, of course, that America’s decades-long conventional wisdom is wrong. But if policies based on it have repeatedly fallen short, isn’t it at least time for the general Washington community to rethink basic assumptions and the policies toward both North Korea and China that flow from them?
I'm not sure there is any way we can force the Chinese to act. In fact, trade sanctions, although potentially a viable forcing function, would hurt us as much as they would hurt China. In fact, I'm not sure sanction that raise the price of goods and potentially create unemployment would be politically viable in this country.

But if China won't act in a manner that is effective, then what?