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Diplomacy on North Korea has assumed all the comic predictability of a Samuel Beckett play. Leader Kim Jong Un tests a nuclear bomb; the world clucks in alarm. The United Nations lurches into action and hosts talks about having talks. Nothing substantive happens. And in Washington, policymakers and pundits remain mystified as to why China does not do more to rein in North Korea.
The reason is simple: Beijing still needs Pyongyang—all the more so given Washington’s pivot to Asia. Perhaps more than any other capital, Washington should understand that the relationship between a great power and client state usually gives the upper hand to the latter. A great power can threaten, bribe, beg, and try to reason, but if it is convinced that the survival of a client state is crucial to its own national security, there is little it can do to change the client state’s behavior. The weaker state is usually all too aware of this fact. The United States lived through this when it supported former Republic of China leader Chiang Kai-shek as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Similarly, Washington has little love for Saudi Arabia’s toxic foreign policy or human rights records, but it sees the kingdom as a cornerstone of Middle Eastern stability.
China operates in much the same way with its client states. Pakistani militants attack Chinese workers in Baluchistan and traffic guns to Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, but since Pakistan provides China with a crucial access point to the Indian Ocean, Beijing can do little but lecture and cajole. Myanmar may be responsible for violent clashes and drug smuggling along the Chinese border, but, especially before the recent reform, commercial and geopolitical considerations pushed China to live with the junta. And in North Korea’s case, China has had little choice but to ignore Pyongyang’s excesses for decades.
North Korea’s geostrategic significance is burnt deep into China’s official mind. To be sure, there are other considerations. The two countries are economic partners with a $6.39 billion trade relationship as of 2014. China also fears a flood of North Korean refugees if the Kim regime were to collapse; the deluge, it is assumed, would overwhelm China’s regional resources in the process and possibly spread discontent amongst China’s ethnic Koreans. But these considerations pale in comparison to the geopolitical imperative.
Historically the Korean peninsula has been a staging ground for armies invading China. Japanese influence in Korea led to the Sino–Japanese War of 1894-45, which ended in defeat for China. The Korean War brought U.S. troops to the doorstep of the Chinese Communist Party, threatening the party’s survival. These days, China is still determined to have a North Korean buffer against attack, and therefore supports the Kim regime so long as it provides one. The pivot to Asia deepens China’s sense of insecurity, making the North Korean buffer all the more important.
Washington’s rebalance to Asia has only heightened Beijing’s fears that the United States seeks to contain China. Beijing feels—quite understandably—as though it is being surrounded by hostile forces all along its coast. Talk of the China threat by politicians and pundits in Washington and Tokyo does little to assuage such concerns. In a world like this, Chinese policymakers have to take the risk of war and consequent attempts to invade China seriously. The North Korean buffer zone, vast and difficult to invade, affords China some protection at a point where it has always been vulnerable. The buffer is imperfect, but in a world where one might be confronted by the United States and Japan, every advantage counts.
This is not to say that China is happy with Pyongyang’s behavior. South Korea has recently opened up discussions with the United States about implementing a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system around the region after North Korea’s latest round of missile tests; if Kim forces South Korea to deploy such a system, he will have harmed long-term Chinese interests by drawing the ire and military force of the United States and other allies to China’s backyard. But for China, there remains no better option than supporting Kim’s regime. The collapse of the North Korean state would create a power void; no one knows what would fill it, but Beijing would fear increased American influence. If Kim proved truly unbearable, an adventurous Chinese leader might contemplate invading North Korea to depose the Kim regime and fill the resulting power vacuum, but such a move would scare Japan, South Korea, and the United States into adopting dangerous countermeasures. A nuclear-armed and volatile Kim regime is a bad option. But for China, it is the least worst option. So Kim does what he wants and China does nothing.
If the United States is serious about changing the status quo, it has three realistic options—two of which include China’s assistance, and one which does not. With Beijing’s help, the United States could revisit an idea that harkens back to the United States’ Cold War-era strategy in Asia. Back then, Mao Zedong played Kim and the Soviet Union held China’s role. One option the United States considered was a joint Soviet–American strike against China’s nuclear facilities. The Soviets showed no interest (which they would later have cause to regret), but the concept could be revived. A new version of this plan would consist of a joint Chinese–U.S. strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. It would only work, however, if Beijing were reassured about its own security. China would ask the United States to be more understanding on issues such as island building in the South China Sea, the reintegration of Taiwan, and China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands. Washington would be reluctant to make any concessions on these fronts. Officials in the United States may see these issues as detached from North Korean policy, but to Chinese policymakers, they are inextricably linked and crucial to the nation’s overall safety.
A variant on this option could include granting China approval for an invasion of North Korea, once tactical strikes take out the nation’s nuclear facilities. Beijing could then attempt to reconstruct North Korea through regime change and the creation of a provisional Chinese government, followed by a successful transfer of power. This option would require a tremendous nation-building operation, and would set a discomfiting global precedent. But if Washington and Beijing are to cooperate on North Korea, this may be the least worst option for both. Such a plan would reassure China about that crucial security buffer; the reassurance, in turn, should allow Washington to avoid drastic concessions on other issues, making the option slightly more attractive to the United States. Such a move is sure to stoke the ire of Japan and, perhaps to a lesser extent, South Korea, but both could be convinced that a Chinese presence in North Korea is preferable to the Kim regime.
To be sure, for Washington, a denuclearized North Korea is likely not worth such concessions. For now, a rising China remains a far greater challenge than a flailing North Korea, and empowering the former to sign the latter’s death warrant may not make much strategic sense. That leaves the option of rapprochement. As Chinese–Soviet relations deteriorated to the point of border clashes in 1968–69, Moscow asked Washington how it would feel about Soviet strikes on Chinese nuclear facilities. Instead of cooperating, U.S. President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sought rapprochement with Beijing. Chinese leader Mao Zedong, considered dangerous and untrustworthy, was still armed with nuclear weapons. But the Nixon–Kissinger team decided that it could live with a nuclear China; it was just one more card in the great balance of power game. Such an arrangement is not out of the question for contemporary North Korea.
There are, of course, important differences between Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea. But if Washington is serious about its pivot to Asia, and if the goal of that pivot is to balance against China, rapprochement with Pyongyang is an option worth contemplating. Allowing Pyongyang to remain nuclear while improving its relationship with the United States might provide Washington with added strength. North Korea is less strategically important to the United States than China was to the Soviet Union, but it is by no means insignificant. If Pyongyang were no longer isolated from Washington, Beijing too might have to reconsider its assertions of power in the region; knowing the United States was on decent terms with North Korea might cause China to hesitate before sending ships to the Senkakus, for example. And the United States could ease China’s fears by making concessions from a position of strength. Accommodating China’s interests in Central Asia, the Arctic, and even the South China Sea would be easier for Washington to stomach if it came by choice, rather than apprehension. U.S. allies would likely be shocked by rapprochement with North Korea, but foreign policy cannot be shackled to allies.
How Pyongyang would respond to overtures from Washington is unclear. Kim might be amenable if it meant that he could continue to do what he pleases, so long as he does not harm the United States and its allies. The benefits of a normal relationship—trade, investment, and perhaps even trips to Hollywood for Kim—might be tempting. And over the course of decades, improved ties might even better conditions for North Korean civilians. At any rate, it is difficult to see how a rapprochement is materially worse than the status quo. The United States already has to live with a nuclear North Korea; it might as well try to get along with the regime.
North Korea may not be worth these radical strategic shifts—in which case, the status quo remains the least worst option. But if Washington does decide to hold steady, expecting China to change its own tone on North Korea is laughable. China has interests and constraints when it comes to North Korean affairs. Washington can balance against China or have China’s cooperation for a denuclearized North Korea. But it cannot have both. Deciding between unpalatable options does not come easily, but that is the business of statecraft. The failure to make that decision is why the United States is stuck, like a Beckett character, waiting for China and saying, “Nothing to be done.”