Originally published in the Financial Times – 11 August 2017
It would be wrong to assume China would stand by if peninsula fell into conflict.
In his acclaimed book The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark wrote about how the great powers of 1914 stumbled into a pan-European war that not only destroyed much of the continent, but unleashed destructive forces that defined the global order for much of the following century.
Some of us fear that we are sleepwalking again, blindly unaware of the abyss that lies ahead. As a Chinese friend reminded me recently, war has its own logic. So too do crises. History teaches us they are both hard to stop once they start.
The greatest global flash point today is the Korean peninsula. Most analysts regard crisis and conflict over the North Korean nuclear programme as improbable. They are right. But the uncomfortable truth is that it is now becoming more possible.
There are three basic scenarios. First, China either talks the North Koreans out of their nuclear programme through politics and diplomacy. Or it forces them out of it through financial and economic sanctions, which deliver real policy change in Pyongyang. Second, the US launches a unilateral military attack on North Korean nuclear facilities to destroy or at least degrade the programme. Or third, the US adjusts to the reality of a North Korea armed with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles and seeks to impose some sort of regime to manage them.
From the perspective of the Trump White House, scenario one is no longer seen as viable. While some see this as US posturing, there is a calculation in Washington that the Chinese are playing for time with the Americans on North Korea, and do not have any intention of doing what is necessary to bring about a fundamental change in Pyongyang’s behaviour. There is also an emerging US view that Beijing will continue to give the impression of taking action against Pyongyang, in order to forestall any risk of unilateral US action until such time as the Americans simply have to accept North Korea as a bona fide nuclear weapons state.
On the second scenario, it would be wrong to assume the US has ruled out a unilateral strike. Whereas Japan and South Korea would oppose such action, this will not be decisive in determining any final US decision. The problem is, China believes the US is bluffing. Beijing cannot comprehend the US position, because it believes America could not afford to ignore South Korean opposition to a unilateral strike, given the probable retaliation against Seoul. China also sees it as inconceivable that the US would risk the shattering of its security alliances with Seoul and Tokyo by acting without their consent.
As for the US accepting North Korea as just another member of the nuclear club, this does not sit well at all in Washington. North Korea is not regarded as a normal state, nor has it exhibited any interest in developing a transparent nuclear doctrine. Furthermore, it has taken to issuing repeated bellicose threats against the US. The domestic backlash against allowing North Korea to acquire its long-sought after ICBM nuclear capability would be considerable, undermining Mr Trump’s concept of a “muscular” presidency.
It would also be wrong to assume that China would simply stand idly by if the peninsula degenerated into conflict. For deeply held strategic reasons, China chose not to sit out the Korean war in 1950, less than a year after the founding of Mao’s People’s Republic. Indeed it entered that war to prevent an American victory. Deep anxiety about the possibility of a US military presence on its north-eastern land border has been an abiding concern for Chinese security policy for over half a century. So we must also think about the risks of the North Korean crisis triggering a wider conflict between China and the US.
We have entered a new and dangerous period with a deeply unsettling trajectory. What then is to be done? First, Beijing needs to accept that the threat of a unilateral US strike is credible enough to warrant a change in Chinese diplomacy towards North Korea. Second, the US should be clear with Beijing about what is at stake here for China. If China succeeds in bringing about a cessation of North Korea’s nuclear programme and the destruction of its existing arsenal, the US would then accept the much discussed “grand bargain” for the peninsular, including a formal peace treaty with Pyongyang, diplomatic recognition by the US, guarantees for the regime’s future, the possible withdrawal of US forces from South Korea and the removal of sanctions.
Whether the US and China can find a creative diplomatic solution to this crisis is an open question — but one that must be answered now.
The writer, a former prime minister of Australia, is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York