Is our North Korea policy a fraud? Or a joke? Or is it a fraud and a joke? Or maybe just a joke and a fraud? The possibilities, I suppose, are endless. But let me explain what I mean. And perhaps folks at America Abroad and others outposts in the blogosphere can help me out or set me straight.
If you look at our policy toward the North Koreans since they called the president's bluff almost four years ago now, it is basically that we will urge and rely upon the Chinese to pressure the North Koreans into acceptable behavior.
Yes, it's dressed up as diplomacy and multilateral talks and this and that. But that's the essence of it.
Yet what incentive do the Chinese have to help us in this matter?
There are some who believe in a malevolent, revisionist China, for whom North Korea, with her missiles and nuclear weapons, plays the role of a stalking horse. In this view, China will never rein in the North Koreans because they are in fact working together to pursue a policy of aggression toward the US and its allies in East Asia.
I don't believe that. But I don't think you need to believe that to question the basic premise of our policy.
Simply looking at China in textbook geopolitical terms, as an aspiring regional or even global power, not set on war but eager to advance its interests on the world stage, I just don't think it adds up.
China's big fear with North Korea is either that there will be some sort of crisis or collapse of the government that will send refugees streaming across the border or that the North Koreans will spark some sort of war that will at a minimum be a major headache and quite possibly knock the stability and prosperity of the region off the rails for years.
Clearly, those two possibilities need to be avoided. But the status quo of some missile sales and continued nuclear programs probably is a good shot at avoiding both. Really putting the screws to the North Koreans risks option one and possibly option two.
Now, what does China get out of the current slow-motion crisis? One thing is a nearly constant muffled begging from Washington that confirms China's role as a major power and provides the Chinese with a major lever in any bilateral dispute with the US. Actually solving the Korean crisis ends all that. So again, I think the status quo is better for China, in terms of buffing her role as a major player on the world stage.
Also note that the PRC internally has a troubled and ambivalent relationship with Chinese nationalism. The government stokes it, but is also clearly in some ways threatened by it. Transparently doing the bidding of the United States doesn't help in this regard. Nor does it necessarily help overseas. Nor does it make sense when you consider that China's real policy agenda is opposition to US 'hegemonism' or the perpetuation of a unipolar world in which the US dictates affairs in every region without any other countries acting as counterweights if not peers or competitors. On various levels the North Korea issue is an thorn, if not a running wound, in the side of what the Chinese term US 'hegemonism'.
In the not too distant past, we had trade and economic cards to play with the Chinese. They needed access to our markets, international organizations, and so forth. But a lot of that access has already been granted. And the massive debt we're building up with the Chinese gives them the lever not us. In any serious crisis with the PRC, I think our debt would become a serious issue much more quickly than our naval power.
The contrary argument to what I've said above is that China doesn't just want to be a regional or global power. She aspires to the prestige of being a respected player in international affairs, not a frightening renegade like Late Wilhelmine Germany, but a peer of Europe and the United States in the councils of the globe. But that seems to suggest the policy the Chinese are now pursuing, countering our UN proposal for stiff sanctions against the North Koreans with a resolution (also backed by Russia) which "deplores" North Korea's recent actions but includes no sanctions or non-voluntary policies.
In other words, China has an interest in preventing the situation from spinning out of control, either through North Korean belligerence or US-Japanese reaction. But in other respects, I think her interests are best served by stringing the issue along. Solving it costs her a lot and gains her little.
All of which suggests that our policy of begging the Chinese to solve our problem with the North Koreans makes no sense and is in fact a joke since it assumes Chinese interests in helping us that do not in fact exist.