Foggy Bottom is the sobriquet for the U.S. Department of State, and some observers might be wondering whether that tag couldn’t be more appropriate these days regarding U.S. policy regarding North Korea. On first glance, it might seem that American policy is comprised of two approaches that are in opposition to each other – and thus not at all productive. Is the U.S. government aware that its right and left hands look out of sync with each other? There is an answer to that question – and it may be surprising – but we need to look at the context first, and that involves observing how the U.S. interacts with China. The former Middle Kingdom is squarely in the middle of this.
AMERICA AND THE CHINA SEAS
China is aggressively claiming territory in the South China Sea, asserting that perhaps as much as 90 percent of that body of water has belonged to China since ancient times. The interested reader is referred to one of the best maps depicting China’s reach into the South China Sea that vividly illustrates the conflict with such neighboring nations as Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China is asserting itself in the East China Sea as well, though here its claims are more credible and they are actually well-supported in a number of ways
China is asserting itself in the East China Sea as well, though here its claims are more credible and they are actually well-supported in a number of ways. China claims that the group of islets known as the Diaoyus to them – the Senkakus to the Japanese – are Chinese territory. For particulars that are not necessary here, please refer to an earlier essay of mine.
The American response has been Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) exercises in the South China Sea and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers overflying the contested territory there. In the East China Sea, the U.S. supports Japan, which has launched 500 Air Self-Defense sorties against Chinese aircraft incursion into the area administered by Japan. There have been confrontations between Chinese and Japanese vessels in that area as well. Moreover, the U.S. is treaty-bound to support Japan in defending the Diaoyus-Senkakus. Naturally, the Chinese protest all of this.
CHINA ON NORTH KOREA
We need to be clear about what China would like with regard to North Korea. Ever since the Korean War, China has been a patron of North Korea. China continues to support the North despite its rude and unsettling behavior only because China needs the North as a buffer between it and a pro-West South Korea. This need is greater than the concern China has about the problems that North Korea creates in the region.
To be sure, China prefers that North Korea be less aggressive and brash in its behavior, and it is very uncomfortable with the North having nukes and testing missiles. Without a doubt China strongly disapproves of North Korean-instigated border clashes such as intrusions into South Korea’s waters off its West Coast and setting off mines in the DMZ, for such provocations are destabilizing and could lead to something even more serious. Anything that presents a challenge to regional status quo is unwelcome.
As the U.S. realizes, progress on reining in the North and bringing a sustainable peace to the Korean Peninsula – and the rest of Northeast Asia, for that matter – is not possible without China’s help. Yet, putting the squeeze on North Korea is not in China’s interest. China will not impose or enforce any sanctions that could threaten its own security needs. The net result for the time being is a continuation of the status quo in which Pyongyang continues to poke and prod Seoul and Washington – as well as Beijing – for its own gain.
So what we have is the U.S. opposing China in the South and East China Seas – yet the Americans expect China to help enforce sanctions on North Korea that could undermine the North’s very existence – thus posing a threat to China.
These two actions of (1) acting to thwart China’s territorial claims in international waters, but then (2) asking for China’s help in controlling its wayward protégé seem at odds with one another. It is, on the surface, quite an unrealistic expectation. However, with nothing to lose since China has heretofore declined to cooperate on North Korea, it does make sense for the U.S. to pursue its opposition to China in the South China and East China Seas.
Despite protestations to the contrary, China does have the power to influence – even shut down – North Korea if it really wants to do so
There is something else. In being asked for help on North Korea, China is placed between a rock and a hard place of (a) having to support a poorly socialized tyrant with nasty toys, and (b) dealing with an already unfavorable world opinion due to its territorial claims, which is now exacerbated by its refusal to assist with North Korea. This puts added pressure on China to rein in the North. Despite protestations to the contrary, China does have the power to influence – even shut down – North Korea if it really wants to do so.
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
So, are China and the U.S. in undisclosed discussions about what to do regarding North Korea? The answer to this question is “Almost certainly.” However, will China succumb to world opinion and apply some meaningful pressure on North Korea? With China assenting to the strict UN sanctions on March 2, the answer to that appears to be “Maybe,” for it remains to be seen how diligently China will enforce them. For the moment, however, China doesn’t have much wiggle-room, and North Korea is the one calling the shots.
Further, there are other things going on behind the scenes – not known to the general public. As one example, it was learned that immediately before the North’s last nuclear test in early January, Pyongyang seemed willing to engage in talks to replace the armistice that had merely halted the hostilities of the Korean War with an actual peace treaty. That fell through when Washington demanded that nuclear weapons be part of the discussions.
Just recently, a U.S. think tank reported that at least two U.S. private sector experts – former government officials closely associated with the North Korean problem – met with North Koreans in Berlin early in February. The meeting was labeled as an informal “Track II” academic exchange, and it is highly probable that the discussion touched on the North’s fourth nuclear test in early January as well as the anticipated (now fait accompli) missile launch in early February. It is also likely that the U.S. Department of State was aware of the rendezvous, if not actually the sponsor of it.
Regardless, it has become clear that, despite Washington’s claims that it will not negotiate with Pyongyang, something akin to that could be happening under the covers, so to speak. It is too early for results of any dialog to be known, but something could be afoot. One thing seems certain, though: Despite its public stance, the U.S. is indeed willing to discuss certain things with North Korea. The question becomes whether each side wants to discuss issues that capture the attention of the other.
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Featured Image: Somewhere in the South China Sea by das farbamt on 2008-08-08 18:51:00