Commenting in a recent piece on the predictably unpredictable pace of the Six Party talks designed to remove nuclear weapons and R&D programs from North Korea, esteemed columnist Charles Krauthammer drew an interesting historical analogy. Just as resolution of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 by President Theodore Roosevelt gave much international visibility to the US and brought this country into Pacific affairs as a leading participant, so also do the ongoing talks open a door for China. China, Krauthammer says, could displace the US as the prime Pacific player by taking the lead in the ongoing multilateral negotiations and resolving the nuclear issue. In effect, China itself could play the magical “China card.”
Certainly Krauthammer is not alone in his hypothesis that China must be the leading character in resolving the current quandary involving North Korea. James Lilley, now an American Enterprise Institute fellow and the only person to serve as ambassador to both Seoul and Beijing, has noted that active Chinese participation is a sine qua non for the North Korea issue. “It is absolutely necessary,” Lilley said, “that China be the steady face and firm voice in dealing with Kim Jong Il’s regime.” The erratic dictator will continue to ignore messages from other countries, preferring to manipulate and deceive, to bluster and blackmail. Why not? These methods have proved extraordinarily lucrative in the past and by all signs continue to produce a cornucopia of electric power, fuel oil, food, medicines, and sweetheart trade agreements, not to mention easily fungible hard currency.
Others, including me in my book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, have emphasized the need for China to play a more positive role in regional conflict resolution. We have discussed the carrots available to China if North Korea is de-fanged: withdrawal of America soldiers from its border regions, resolution of the North Korean refugee quandary, and improved economic conditions. There are also sticks: a nuclear Japan followed by Taiwan and South Korea, jeopardizing China’s hegemony in the area and precariously upsetting the power balance. So far Krauthammer is the first to recognize clearly how Chinese initiative exercised at this moment could dramatically alter the strategic balance in the Pacific Rim for decades, tilting the scales in favor of the Peoples Republic. If China replaces America then its vision of absorbing Taiwan would have a much greater chance to occur in this century. An unrestrained nuclear race precipitated by a belligerent North Korea could delay such amalgamation by more than a century.
Oddly, as is often the case in these convoluted foreign policy issues, the most desirable carrot for China is one that it already holds in its hands: the ability to affect regime change in North Korea. By ousting Kim Jong Il China would assume undisputed leadership among long term rivals, including the US. Will Chinese leadership be sufficiently perceptive to grasp this initiative and run with it? Freezing the moment in time, I’d have to call it a long shot, but far from impossible. China has exerted diplomatic muscle, increasingly so over the past several years, with a clear objective of elbowing American and Western interests out of the Pacific.
Through a combination of intimidation and economic incentive it has convinced the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to include China in regional meetings that pointedly exclude America and Japan. It has manipulated Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation members to speak against US “economic imperialism” and push for a “Pan-Asian” membership among which China rises naturally to the top. Most troubling is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a six year old organization that includes Russia, Iran, and regional players who have interests inimical to the United States. While ASEAN and APEC are economically based, it is increasingly clear that SCO is designed to be a sub-rosa military pact, aimed primarily at America and secondarily at Japan.
Among several analysts, including astute Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, China is shown to be a mounting threat, a destabilizing force in the East Asia region and a superpower that has a global agenda. Are there counter forces within China that might counter this somewhat alarmist trend? Of course. We tend to see China as monolithic, the way we mistakenly viewed international communism at the height of the Cold War. Yet it is inconceivable that any country as large in geographic area, population, political opinion, and multiple cultures could be monolithic.
Within the Communist Party there are factions and cliques that ascend and descend in power, jockeying constantly for position like the racers in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley track. Several of the major city-states have leadership that is driven economically toward what would be considered in China a libertarian or free market agenda. There are forces that promote freedom and democracy. However the leadership in Beijing, even under the disarmingly youthful Hu Jintao, still carries the legacy of hard-core, anti-Western Maoist philosophy. It is important for national security purposes that we look at the entire China and not simply at the parts we admire.
As much as we would like to think that the Chinese leadership thinks as we do on the subject of North Korea, for example, we are frustrated by lack of action in certain areas and by aggressive crackdowns on North Korean refugees in a manner that defies logic. Why would China care if North Koreans transited its territory to escape into South Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, or Burma? Yet Chinese police and military border guards search actively on China’s border with these countries to capture refugees escaping into them. Wouldn’t it be simpler to let them go? Or is forcible repatriation considered a policy that will discourage mass refugee flight, thereby sparing China the trouble of dealing with yet another population control issue.
Serious observers think that China is already conducting economic warfare against its greatest rival, the United States. Currency issues, hugely disparate current account imbalances, and the rush to acquire strategically critical industries like petroleum and rare earths, lead us to think that we are justified in questioning China’s motives as well as its methods. We watched silently as China achieved controlling status over the Panama Canal, a strategic chokepoint as vital in the 21st century as it was in the early 20th when pushed to completion by visionary President Theodore Roosevelt. It took the naiveté of an incompetent successor, Jimmy Carter, to lose the Canal for American interests. As soon as it was able, China snatched it up.
With its voracious appetite for petroleum for strategic economic and military reasons, there is every reason to be concerned with Chinese appearance in Iran, Nigeria, and Venezuela. It has even attempted in the highly publicized Unocal acquisition case, to purchase an American company. Certainly when dealing with the venal and the deranged, as in Hugo Chavez and the Iranian mullah regime, China will be willing to provide whatever these rogue regimes desire in order to achieve its long range strategic goals. And those goals are predicated on ultimate replacement of America as the world’s leading superpower.
While regime change in North Korea is necessary and critically important, we need to be clear about how it occurs and not irresponsibly or blindly concede undue power to China in order to accomplish this worthy goal. We need to be cautious that we do not give up longer term interests in exchange for short term achievements. It is a situation that calls for extreme perspicacity and diplomatic skills – along with brutally honest attention to strategic, human rights, and national interests. Unfortunately we have faint hope of such sterling attributes among the bulk of the State Department bureaucrats. Consequently, this has become an issue of critical national importance and needs to be elevated to public debate as quickly as possible.
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