North Koreans attend a rally against the US and South Korea in Nampo, North Korea, April 3, 2013. (Reuters)
Remember the North Korea crisis? Just a few weeks ago? The one where North Korea’s portly young basketball-fan-in-chief threatened to rain nuclear missiles down on the United States and turn Washington into a “lake of fire”? Where did it go?
Well, it turns out that not only did President Obama handle the crisis pretty well, refusing to respond to North Korea’s outlandish provocations, using minimal deterrence measures, reassuring US allies in Japan and South Korea, quietly meeting with South Korea’s president to call for restraint, and—most important—seeking China’s cooperation. It also turns out that China, mostly behind the scenes, did the right thing, too.
President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China are scheduled to meet in sunny California next week, and it will be a critical encounter indeed, on a stunningly wide range of topics. But on the eve of that meeting, Beijing is signaling that it has shifted its Korea policy dramatically as a sort of “gift” of good will toward the United States in advance of the Xi-Obama meeting. It is not, of course, a gift: China is doing what it is doing out of its own national interest. But it’s an indicator of what might happen if the United States and China overcome their lingering hostility and mutual suspicion and tackle world crises together—including, of course, the emerging standoff over China’s rise in the Pacific and Obama’s ill-conceived “pivot” toward Asia.
Yesterday, in an important news analysis, The New York Times reported the possible Chinese shift on Korea, quoting a top Chinese Communist Party official about the new policy of the Xi administration:
“The former administration always put ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula in first place, while the current administration sets the denuclearization of the peninsula first,” the paper quoted Zhang Liangui, of the Communist Party School of the Central Committee, as saying.
China will no longer “indulge” North Korea’s weapons program at the cost of instability in North Asia, Mr. Zhang said. This brought China and the United States closer together, Mr. Zhang said.
Shi Yinhong, a “professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government,” called the new policy a “big gift” to Obama, confirming earlier speculation that China had read North Korea the riot act over its provocative nuclear saber-rattling:
Mr. Xi has offered a “big gift” to the United States, Mr. Shi said, by pressuring the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, to resume talks over his country’s growing nuclear weapons program.
A few days ago, the Times reported that China had “bluntly” told North Korea to behave itself:
In telling the North that it should return to negotiations with the United States and others, Mr. Xi struck a stern tone, saying, “The Chinese position is very clear: no matter how the situation changes, relevant parties should all adhere to the goal of denuclearization of the peninsula, persist in safeguarding its peace and stability, and stick to solving problems through dialogue and consultation.”
Huge problems remain in US-Chinese relations, including China’s apparent love of hacking and cyberwarfare and, as I blogged about this week, China’s cyber-ability to crack the code of major American weapons systems and the US missile defense program, but the fact that the two countries could work together shows that Washington and Beijing can both avoid conflict in, say, the South China Sea, and deal with problems like Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The Times piece makes it clear that Beijing is well aware that a rising power, such as China, and an established power, like the United States, must learn to deal with their encounter in the Pacific and around the world with great care.
Other analysts, such as Edward Luttwak, the quirky neocon and military strategist, believes that the United States must inevitably take action to counter and suppress China’s rise. He outlines this is a book that I’ve recently read called The Rise of China Vs. The Logic of Strategy.
Other rightwingers are blasting the Obama administration and the Pentagon for seeking cooperation, not conflict, with Beijing. Take, for example, the near-hysterical tone of this piece in the Los Angeles Times by Gordon Chang and retired Admiral James Lyon, who commanded the US Pacific fleet:
This spring, China’s navy accepted the Pentagon’s invitation to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific—RIMPAC—naval exercise to be held off Hawaii. This will be the first time China takes part in the biennial event.
Our allies should signal their intent to withdraw from the exercise if China participates. Failing that, the invitation should be withdrawn. RIMPAC is for allies and friends, not nations planning to eventually wage war on the United States.
China is “planning to eventually wage war on the United States”?
In fact, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, who just met with President Xi in Beijing, called there for stronger cooperation and consultaion between the two countries and “deeper military ties.” Meeting with China’s top military official, Fan Chonglong, Donilon said:
“An essential part of building a new model for relations between great powers is ensuring we have a healthy, stable and reliable military to military relationship.”
The Wall Street Journal, reporting on Donilon’s visit to China, reports that the national security adviser was working hard to prepare the ground for the Obama-Xi meeting next week:
The visit is being billed as a chance for the two presidents to skip the pageantry that usually accompanies a Chinese leader’s visit to the US and to get down to business negotiating on a range of sensitive topics.
Mr. Obama “is firmly committed to building a relationship defined by higher levels of practical cooperation and greater levels of trust, while managing whatever differences and disagreements that may arise between us,” Mr. Donilon said during his meeting with Mr. Xi.
There’s no Luttwakian iron law of strategy that means that the United States and China must fall into conflict, either in military-strategic terms or, as Luttwak says, in the economic as well. The Obama administration, after perhaps neglecting China during Obama’s first four years, seems to want to get off on a new foot in its relations with the new Chinese leaders.
Want to bone up on North Korea and the United States? Read Calvin Trillin's recent piece here.