Is there any piece of received wisdom more universally invoked than the inane piety that China wants to calm North Korea down, and gets annoyed when the Kims act up? It’s hard to think of many. This hoary premise gets trotted out every time. And every time, it comes up short on explanatory or operational value. It’s never relevant to why the Kim went crazy. Nor is China coming down on a Kim ever the key to settling the Kim’s hash. If the snarling Kim stops yelping for a while, it’s always because the U.S. was induced to do something – intensify some negotiating stance, make some offer, fork over some “aid,” make a concession to China; or maybe just look alert enough to make it the wrong time for a showdown.
You’d think someone would figure this out. When the Kims start throwing food on the floor, somebody’s got an eye on Uncle Sam.
China’s basic posture
While it’s quite true that China sets boundaries on a given Kim’s latitude for geopolitical tantrums, it is wrong to suppose that China wants the same thing the U.S., South Korea, or Japan wants. China is only interested in pacifying North Korea if events are not proceeding to China’s advantage. If it is advantageous to China for the Kims to provoke responses out of the U.S., China will let the drama run its course. (As discussed below, that is the case today.)
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Conversely, it is equally wrong to imagine that China instigates what the Kims do. The Chinese don’t have to make a Kim’s nonsense up for him; the average Kim is an indefatigable nonsense factory. His natural intransigence and self-cultivated geopolitical alienation are useful for China – a convenience to be prized and guarded.
The Kim psychosis keeps the Korean peninsula divided, with one half of it joined at the hip to China. For China, that is better than any other option – perhaps even better than the most unlikely one: a united Korea joined at the hip to China.
The Chinese want to prevent, at all costs, the opposite situation: a united Korea allied with the United States and friendly with Japan. But a united Korea would tend to be a pain in China’s neck in any case. For the Chinese, keeping Korea divided is a pretty good option, especially when it’s the United States paying to guarantee that the division remains peaceful. China couldn’t afford 60 years of guarding the DMZ.
The Obama enigma
The underlying geopolitical structure for that assumption is starting to change, however, in part because of the deliberate, announced policy change toward the Pacific Rim on the part of the U.S. But it’s also because, in the context of that new policy, no one is sure what Obama will do. In visibly and enthusiastically rattling the saber at North Korea, he is not doing what previous presidents have done. There is one exception – John F. Kennedy, abetted by Robert McNamara – and their pattern of behavior in foreign policy did not turn out well.
Obama’s pattern (Honduras, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria; the missile defense pull-out from Poland; the Obama nuclear policy and New START) is as confused as JFK’s, if not as bombastic. Predicting what Obama means by the rather humorous “airplane escalation” in Korea – first the B-52s, then the B-2s, then, oh, no, not them, the F-22s – is something of a puzzler. Is he trying to deter something? If so, what? Clearly, he’s not deterring Kim Jong-Un’s saber rattling or missile-launcher moving.
I was amused (yet again) to hear on the TV news yesterday that the U.S. Navy is moving one of its “mightiest warships,” USS John F McCain (DDG-56), to the waters off North Korea. McCain is an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, and as such is certainly mightier than the global-average destroyer. But there are 61 other Arleigh Burkes, in total, and 15 others have the ballistic missile defense (BMD) upgrade that McCain has, including four other Arleigh Burkes homeported, like McCain, in Japan. I’m a big fan of the Arleigh Burke, but I do wonder where the hyperventilating copy billing McCain as one of our “mightiest warships” came from. I really hope it wasn’t a government office.
The question remains: What is Obama hoping to achieve with these moves? It’s like he’s doing an imitation of what he and other academic leftists perceive to be going on when nations come into conflict over something. These leftists tend to characterize events in terms of nations “posturing” and “rattling the saber” at each other, with the implication that it’s all stupid, regrettable, and untethered to meaningful policy issues – and that it could be prevented with a little grown-up intervention.
It’s as if Obama has never taken the trouble to know that the dealings between nations do hinge on real and particular issues, even when – especially when – the nations come into conflict. In one way or another, we always negotiate our way into conflict; it erupts when one side says “no,” and the other side won’t be satisfied with that. Very often, there is a very good reason for the “no.” And up until the “no” happens, the nations are “talking” real specifics with each other, whether directly, obliquely, or through an intermediary. The meaning of force deployments in this context is generally unmistakable. It is clear what each side wants, and what the force is intended to convey.
In the real world, if you haven’t got anything specific to say, you shouldn’t be slinging major weapon systems around as if you did. We don’t expect better from Kim Jong-Un, who was raised to be a Marxist nut th’owback. (We’ll see if there turns out to be method in his madness.) But we should require better of the president of the United States. What does Obama want North Korea to do? What is his policy on the Koreas? How does he think American security is affected by them? What is his vision for a pacified East Asia, taking into account our ally Japan and the great nations Russia and China, whom we cannot simply ignore? What is the end-state in view?
None of these questions can be answered, because Obama hasn’t addressed them. That is the real context in which China has to make decisions. When Beijing mobilizes military forces at the border with North Korea, it’s not because the Chinese think it will be necessary to use them to control Kim. It’s because they aren’t sure what Obama is going to do. The purpose is to clarify China’s interest in the situation, and the reality that intervening in North Korea will result in a confrontation with China.
China can benefit from a stymied United States
I don’t think China is behind Kim’s current brinkmanship; specifically, I don’t think China has to be. Kim can think this stuff up himself. But given the view of Obama held by China’s leadership, I do assess that the Chinese would be happy to see the U.S. twist in the wind, if Kim can find a way to confound us after a season of U.S. threat-making. The Chinese are in no hurry to settle this situation down.
If Pyongyang brings off another missile launch, and the U.S. does nothing – if the reactor at Yongbyon is started up again, and the U.S. does nothing – tensions will be raised in East Asia for the foreseeable future, and U.S. power will not have been able to reduce them. American prestige in the region will decline, the longer Kim can continue to do the occasional bad thing, while barking out his sclerotic-commie-regime imbecilities.
The U.S. is likely at some point to be faced with the need to do more than “contain” the situation, and at that point, it’s a good question whether our allies will still have confidence in us. If press disclosures about sending in mighty warships don’t deter Kim from launching missiles and producing more plutonium, what then? How many “pinpricks” from him will Seoul have to absorb? What will change in the U.S-Japan relationship, if Tokyo has to manage a state of real and constant alarm about missiles from North Korea?
The Kim regime is a superb convenience for Beijing: an ally with excellent potential to get someone like Obama to imply more than he can deliver, when it comes to regional security. China doesn’t have to do it herself; she can contain the U.S. reaction by mobilizing on the border, and let Kim’s antics flummox us and undercut our prestige and influence in the Far East. China is playing a long game – one that was handed to her by Obama himself – and the unknown variable in China’s game is not Kim but Obama.
Has China assessed him correctly? In terms of whether he would actually take military action against North Korea, I believe so. The Chinese estimate that he will be deterred from that by a quiet display of will from China. They are probably right. Whatever happens, Obama will sell it successfully with the American public and the Western press as a victory – but if it’s actually a U.S. backdown, the South Koreans and Japanese will see that clearly. And they’re the ones who matter to China’s calculation that the Obama policy on shifting America’s emphasis to the Pacific can be neutralized.
Things have to change anyway
The truth emerging from all this is one that was inevitable: the armistice on the Korean peninsula is not a basis for regional stability. It never has been. As long as U.S. power was overwhelming and largely unchallenged, our guarantees kept the armistice stable. But that period is at an end. The armistice is one of the fault lines that will crack and widen as our power recedes from the globe. That is happening today.
A status quo that won’t sustain itself becomes harder and harder to maintain. The only way to get ahead of this dynamic is to have our own vision for the future of the Koreas, and the region in general, and act to promote it. My personal vision would be of a reunified Korea, secure and independent, with a comparatively liberal, consensual government – in Seoul, for the time being – open and friendly to Japan, China, Russia, and the West, and not armed against China. Laboring to promote this outcome would be the same thing as laboring to promote the conditions that could make it possible.
Such an integrated policy set would not entail drive-by threats with mighty warships and dread F-22 stealth fighters, but rather would involve relentless diplomacy and a strengthening of the overall U.S. posture, both economic and military. The reason China isn’t telling Kim he’s a moron and he’d better sit down and shut up is that the American posture is inverted as regards these features. We’re making the drive-by threats, but our diplomacy in the region is inconsistent, perfunctory, and reactionary, and the decline in our resources for power is obvious to everyone.
Slinging force around, with press notices, is not what a strong president does. That’s why China is reading Obama differently from her read on earlier presidents. It’s time for us to read China correctly, and realize that her stake in the global status quo is not ideological or moral, like ours, but merely pragmatic and contingent. From her standpoint, she is watching Kim and Obama both act stupidly. She will get what profit she can from the situation, but she no longer assumes that the U.S. sets boundaries on what is possible for the rest of the world – not even for Kim Jong-Un. China is interested to let Kim probe the Obama posture, and see how far he can go.