On a superficial reading, China is feeling the squeeze to take effective action to bring North Korea to heel over its rogue nuclear program. On a deeper reading, China’s gains from the crisis exceed the costs. On a wider reading, Washington daily vindicates Pyongyang’s nuclear choices.
In July, Pyongyang demonstrated technical capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles that put U.S. mainland cities within reach. The trigger to the latest tit-for-tat brinkmanship is revised U.S. intelligence assessments that North Korea has miniaturized warheads to fit them on the missiles, and may already possess 60 bombs.
China is at a critical inflection point in its upwardly mobile trajectory. Its long-term strategic vision and political stability have underpinned sustained economic growth and dramatic expansion of comprehensive national power. This has substantially bolstered its voice and role in regional and global governance. Permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council adds to its structural weight in managing world affairs.
But China is still only a middle income country. At $8,000, its GDP per capita is only one-seventh that of the United Sttaes and ranks it 72nd in the world. Its dramatic growth and massive population are projected forward and the prospective power potential conditions the expectations of China as a global leader today. But at present China lacks the material capacity to meet such elevated expectations.
Stability and conflict-avoidance in its immediate region remains a vital national interest for China’s development and peaceful rise. Heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear antics risk an uncontrolled armed conflict, strengthened U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliances and enhanced prospects of nuclear breakouts by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
But China’s leverage over Pyongyang, although greater than that of others, is limited. Pyongyang has proven indifferent to what others think and impervious to external pressure. With 80 percent of trade with China, more U.N. sanctions amount to more sanctions on China. It is cost-free for Washington and Western countries to engage in virtue signaling by enacting still tougher international sanctions whose costs have to be borne by China.
If the sanctions succeed in destroying North Korea’s economy and engineer a collapse, millions of desperate refugees will flood into China and a crucial geographical buffer against U.S. forces will disappear.
By what right does Washington tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of its ally Israel but demand that China force a rollback of North Korea’s? In Beijing’s eyes, the U.S. provokes a crisis but holds China responsible for solving it. U.S. threats also stir memories among elderly Chinese of how they were treated in the early year’s of China’s own nuclear program.
Any further weakening of Pyongyang’s links with Beijing and Moscow will feed North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s siege paranoia and solidify reliance on nuclear weapons as the only assured guarantee of regime and personal survival. The U.S. record of infidelity to political package deals — the 1954 Geneva accords on Indochina, understandings with Russia on Eastern Europe on ending the Cold War, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s abandonment of his nuclear program — inspires distrust. Every fresh bellicose threat from Washington deepens Pyongyang’s dependence on and attachment to a nuclear deterrent that can strike the U.S. mainland.
On balance, therefore, in China’s calculation the status quo of a nuclearized North Korea, however unpalatable, is preferable to the upheaval that would result from military strikes or regime collapse. This is consistent with the sober conclusion of The Economist that all options for dealing with North Korea are bad but blundering into a war would be the worst.
Nothing in North Korea’s history indicates its leadership is suicidal. Conversely, Donald Trump’s career to date does not inspire confidence in the quality of his decision-making. On nuclear policy he is positively terrifying in proving with each new tweet how ignorant, reckless and a threat to world peace he is. In a 37-country global survey of 40,448 people, 62 percent considered him dangerous and only 26 percent thought he is fit to be U.S. president.
The recent Trump-Kim exchange of inflammatory rhetoric highlighted both as blustering megalomaniacs who pose a clear and present danger to world peace. Kim may already have achieved one major goal of being treated as an equal by the U.S. On Aug. 15, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned publicly that any action against the North would require his consent and he renewed calls for dialogue with the North. But the frightening reality is that Trump would not face any domestic checks on his untrammeled authority to use nuclear weapons. The existing protocol has been designed for speed and efficiency, not deliberation, and permits the president to launch nuclear weapons with a single verbal order.
By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is the very model of a circumspect, calm and statesmanlike leader urging restraint in rhetoric and action by both sides and calling for a phased program (freeze-for-freeze) to reduce tensions. Each new step on the escalation ladder does further damage to the U.S. reputation for responsible leadership while boosting China’s profile and prestige. It also obscures China’s own past culpability in enabling North Korea’s nuclear program while underlining the history of U.S. forcible regime change as the main driver of Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuit.
This, in turn, this amplifies the larger narrative of the diminishing U.S. presence in Asia, weakening its alliance system and sowing doubts about the reliability and quality of U.S. decision-making. Retaliatory trade measures against China would cause substantial damage to the U.S. economy and also to U.S. allies in global supply chains that run increasingly through China.
Japan and South Korea have managed to live for years with the reality of vulnerability to North Korea’s nukes. There is no reason why the U.S. cannot learn to do the same. Kim should be left in no doubt that an attack on any of the three allies would bring instant military strikes and elimination of the regime. But there will be no preventive strikes. Instead a policy of containment — which requires credible threats, not bluster — will be instituted along with risk avoidance and crisis stability measures that served all sides well during the Cold War.
The only genuine progress on eliminating nuclear threats will be a universal ban treaty followed by a verifiable and enforceable plan for destroying and dismantling nuclear weapons programs in all countries.
Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
This article first appeared in the Japan Times on 16 August 2017