One of life’s preeminent lessons is that we can’t always get what we want, even if we have truth and virtue on our side. And such appears to be the case with North Korea’s continued attempts to arm itself with nuclear weapons capable of firing on the US.
On New Years Day North Korea’s Kim Jung Un proclaimed that his country was on the verge of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could propel a nuclear warhead to America’s west coast. President-elect Trump, to no one’s surprise, immediately took to Twitter and pronounced, “It won’t happen.”
Clearly no one wants to see it happen. The Chinese don’t; South Korea doesn’t; Japan is fearful; and, of course, it’s the last thing Americans want to experience. But desire, even conviction, are not always the stuff of reality. Life just isn’t that fair much of the time.
Economic sanctions have apparently had little impact on North Korea’s nuclear intentions. As much as we’d all like to believe that North Korea will – must – crumble under the weight of its own tyranny, that hasn’t happened to date.
In recognition of that fact, the US and South Korea appear ready to install Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range missiles before they strike. China, of course, has protested loudly because the advanced radar system on which THAAD depends would be capable of reaching beyond China’s border. (Would President Kennedy have allowed THAAD, if it had been available, to be installed by the Soviets in Cuba?)
Trump, like most people, appears to recognize that China stands the best chance of bringing Kim in line. China is North Korea’s only real link to the greater world. Ninety percent of its foreign trade goes through China and even its sparse links to the Internet originate in Shenyang, the capital city of Liaoning Province.
Trump, as a result, has expressed indignant frustration that China has not done more to stop the nuclear proliferation although no Western diplomat can truly know what conversations have taken place behind closed doors. And, Trump vows, he will make Beijing do more through artful negotiation and sheer will.
China, however, is in a difficult position. It shares an 880-mile (1,420 km) border with North Korea. (The border between North and South Korea, by comparison, is only 160 miles in length and the distance between New York City and Chicago is less than 800 miles.) And while China is clearly the superior military power it is a border that would nonetheless be difficult to close, particularly given the number of government sanctioned North Koreans already living in China’s Dong Bei region. (North Korea also shares a small border with Russia.)
China, as a result, is reluctant to see the North Korean regime simply collapse. North Korean refugees, no doubt, would pour into China, creating the kind of humanitarian nightmare we have witnessed all too often elsewhere in the world.
And it certainly does not want South Korea, a staunch US ally, to fill in any power vacuum that might be created by a collapse of the North. There is no doubt that the 30,000 US military personnel currently stationed in South Korea would tag along, creating an enormous security risk to the Western-wary Chinese. (The Chinese have not fared well at the hands of the West in the past.)
In the meantime, Trump continues to tweak the nose of Beijing on issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea to the decades-entrenched one China policy. This is certainly not the way to earn Chinese trust or support.
And this, in the end, is the biggest risk to the relationship of the US and China and stability in the region going forward in the Trump era. Trump is a businessman and, having been one myself, I have no quarrel with that. He, however, sees everything through a transactional lens. Everything, including foreign diplomacy, is negotiable. All policy positions are mere chess pieces to be manipulated as part of the overall negotiation. He will, he believes, get China to do more, just as he will get Mexico to pay for his wall.
There is a fundamental flaw in his logic, however. The Chinese are not transactional. Their culture, political and otherwise, is built on the Confucian foundation of obligation that flows from relationships. They will not isolate the pieces of that relationship and will, instead, take a much more holistic approach to diplomacy.
President-elect Trump must, therefore, set clear priorities for his foreign policy team, a practice that he has yet to display any real interest in.
China can help with North Korea. And I’m sure they have no more interest in a nuclearized Korean peninsula than anyone else. It’s clearly not to their advantage.
But China won’t be bullied either. The world has changed. The US cannot always get what it wants. Our foreign policy must be prioritized and pursued through diplomacy and the strengthening of relationships, not through the art of the deal.
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