Monday, June 10, 2013

Could North Korea Become the Breakthrough in the US-China Relations?

This entry is an revision of the previous blog entry to reflect that the summit between Obama and Xi had taken place and was first posted on China-US Focus.
The informal summit between the leaders of China and the US concluded pretty much according to most expectations, namely no breakthroughs or unpleasant surprises.

According to some reports, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping did agree to work together on keeping North Korea in check and the Korean peninsula nuclear free. 

Indeed there have been some recent developments to suggest that North Korea is apparently yielding to China’s pressure to behave. The North Koreans have approached the South Korean government to renew a dialogue that has gone on for years, more off than on.

Of course historically nothing about North Korea has been predictable or dependable. The Pyongyang government has always been able to exploit the difference in the policies regarding North Korea between Beijing and Washington, a difference that gives Pyongyang room to alternatingly test the patience of the two powers.

Despite or because of vocal protests from the US, North Korea has apparently gone ahead with an underground nuclear detonation—“apparently” because no one seems to know for sure.

Despite consternation from Japan and South Korea along with pressure from the US, North Korea has test-fired ballistic missiles in the direction of neighboring South Korea and Japan. Some supposed intercontinental range missile turned out much shorter range than expected and some were outright duds.

Each time after the government has misbehaved on the international stage, it would offer to begin the six party talks, provided of course the US will agree to preconditions that the North Koreans know the US will not accept.

The only recourse Washington seems to have is to lean on Beijing to get the North Korea to behave, since the regime is completely dependent on the food and energy aid from China, without which the regime would certainly collapse.

But China is equally frustrated, if not more so, by the North Koreans. Each time Beijing sends a special envoy to Pyongyang to ask the government not to build a bomb or not to fire a missile, the Pyongyang would assure the envoy and then goes ahead and reneges a few days after the envoy leaves. Sometime, the misbehavior takes place a couple of days ahead of the arrival of the visiting delegation just to rub it in.

Most recently, after the most recent missile test and after finally releasing Chinese fishermen held by the North Koreans—as this has happened more than once—Pyongyang promptly sent their highest ranking military official to Beijing to again express proper contrition and again promise to participate in the much desired six party talks.

North Korea’s seemingly erratic behavior has been deliberate and carefully calibrated. It continues to push and test the boundary of what China will tolerate, because Pyongyang knows that China will not allow the regime to totally implode.

China has two major reasons not wanting to see the Pyongyang regime collapse. First it would have to deal with a massive refugee problem as Koreans flee north into China. Second, presumably the Seoul government will take over and unify the entire peninsula. This would mean potential American military presence all the way to the border of China.

Up to now, Washington has been badgering Beijing to fix the problem and make Pyongyang behave but has offered nothing that would help Beijing get out of the conundrum.

But there is something the US can offer to China that would help China exert pressure on North Korea more effectively. Namely, the US can promise to immediately withdraw all its troops from the Korean peninsula when and if the Pyongyang government collapses and the South Korea government were to unify the peninsula.

It would take a lot more mutual trust in the bilateral relations than currently exists between China and the US before Beijing would accept the promise of American withdrawal as realistic. However once confidence has been established, the Pyongyang government would find much less room to be the bad actor. It would either have to behave or face extinction.

Obama could point out to Xi that since China normalized its relations with South Korea (to the consternation of the North) in 1992, South Korea has become an important economic partner of China and the bilateral relations have been cordial without one-sided demands like those from the North.

If the Korean peninsula were to unify under Seoul, China would have a friendly neighbor and enjoy a stable relationship. With peace and stability being the common goal of China and the US, there would be no further reason for an American military presence.

In order to convince Xi and his Zhongnanhai colleagues that Obama is sincere, he would have to take steps to build trust. The most prominent step would be to change his pivot to Asia, which China regards as military containment, into a platform for joint high sea patrols and exercises with the PLA Navy.

When realized, there are two important benefits for Obama in addition to reining in North Korea. First, with sequestration, Obama is facing a shrinking defense budget. He still has a war budget on al Qaeda that needs to be fed. He does not have the funds to deploy troops in the Pacific where the US faces no threat.

More importantly, Obama should be thinking about his legacy to history. By brokering a lasting peace with China and become partners in developing a stable Asia Pacific, Obama would be remembered for altering the disastrous warpath toward self destruction embarked by the previous Bush administration and putting America back on a path to prosperity.

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