Time to play the China card

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

June 19, 2003

The Bush Administration Ý in a tumultuous world brought on by incredible technological innovation and a decade of American foreign policy somnambulence Ý has a lot on its plate. To call for decisive policymaking in one of the most difficult areas is therefore risking, at least, the accusation of lack of realism.

But it becomes daily increasingly clear that without a showdown with Beijing, the East Asia situation will deteriorate dramatically. The crux of this argument is that Beijing is the key player in a number of complex issues in which U.S. national interest is intimately involved.

The most immediate is nuclearization of North Korea, a rogue state with which any negotiated agreement is valueless. Yet we seem likely to fall into a circular trap of a negotiated settlement with Pyongyang which would, in effect, insure the life of that regime to permit it to continue to blackmail its neighbors for its survival.

The alternatives are stark: military action would be opposed by all its neighbors, including above all South Korea. Or, to force the regime to its knees by denying continued economic assistance through an effective international embargo.

For such an embargo to be effective, China would have to play the central role. Pyongyang depends on the Chinese for its energy and much of its critical imports. Even should present negotiations with Japan to cut off vital aid from the Korean ethnic community there, or an even more unlikely scenario in which the current South Korean administration also collaborated, it would still fall to China to close the door.

There are optimistic noises that it is in China’s interests not to have a nuclear armed North Korea, that Chinese leadership will ultimately Ý through subtle means beyond the ken of ignorant barbarians Ý bring such force to bear. There is room for deep skepticism. Granted the real world is painted in greys, that there will always be “leakage” Ý for example, reported recent use of Chinese airspace to deliver new North Korean missiles to Iran in violation of Beijing’s commitments.

But it stands to reason Chinese leadership must be conflicted over what to do. Given the desperate shape of the country Ý hunger again threatens millions after at least two million lives lost in a famine, pressure from China, however subtlety applied, could lead to Pyongyang’s collapse. One can only guess what role old Communist comradeship [and more recently munitions sales collaboration] mean to the Chinese military, or for that matter, strategic thinking about how at small cost Pyongyang checkmates U.S. power. In the Byzantine Chinese leadership world, the reported call by supporters of President Hu for former President Jiang to give up at least partial control of the armed forces through his chairmanship of the Central Military Commissions, certainly indicates turf if not strategic arguments at the leadership level. A North Korean state forced to move from its Stalinist past into “the Chinese model” risks the possibility of reunification. And China probably, like Japan, would just as soon not have to deal with such a new and potentially powerful new player on the Northeast Asian chess board.

Speculation is almost unlimited. But what the likelihood is China’s leaders will try to take a pass on the North Korean issue Ý certainly for as long as they can. Washington would be courting further disaster to move toward an economic blockade to halt North Korea’s nuclearization Ý and the likely subsequent nuclearization of Japan and Taiwan, and perhaps even South Korea -- without a commitment from China.

At this point we are at the nexus of the problem. The U.S. is still fumbling for a policy to deal with China. There has been a retreat from the strategic collaboration that the Clinton Administration sought. President Bush has reinforced the commitment to a peaceful solution to Taiwan, and guaranteed [although the devil may be in the details] continued military assistance. The State Dept. continues its buzz about human rights, although Washington has ignored proposed changes in Hong Kong law which discards freedom that distinguishes it from the Mainland under the agreement for accession under the “:one country, two systems” agreement. The U.S. accepts perfunctory Chinese adherence to the World Trade Organization but the staggering $100 billion trade deficit threatens to grow exponentially.

Now having “proved” the incredible superiority of American weaponry in Iraq, with the U.S. trade deficit the basis of coastal China’s prosperity, with the obvious need for continued massive transfer of technology if China is to make any inroads on its massive problems, with what many Chinese must see as the U.S.’ role as a stabilizer in East Asia, Washington negotiators would have a strong hand. And the time may be ripe, the need may be apparent, for agreement on North Korea with Beijing as the center piece of an overall formulation of a U.S. China strategy and policy.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

June 19, 2003

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