The North Korea Standoff: China's Moment?

After North Korea's alleged torpedo attack on its southern neighbor, it seems likely that tensions will increase between the two Koreas, which is likely to draw in China, Japan, the US, and Russia as well. This is the moment to encourage China to take on a more active role in maintaining stability in the world. China has not yet really demonstrated that it is willing or capable of doing this, but this is a situation in which I think the US ought to try to leave much of the work up to China. For one thing, China often uses North Korea as a bargaining chip in relations with the US and South Korea. You want to be responsible for North Korea? Fine, have at it!

There is more to this than cynicism, however. With the US still guaranteeing the security of South Korea, increasing its partnership if necessary, China will have even more riding on the North's stability than it does now. China dislikes having a nuclear-armed neighbor. Sure, the US and Russia have nukes too and may be too close for comfort, but they have shown themselves so far to be relatively responsible and predictable custodians. Not so the erratic Kim Jong Il. China also worries about the streams of refugees that might result from a collapse of the North Korean regime. Make this China's responsibility, and it might just take up the initiative and begin to act strongly, with US backing (as well as the backing of the rest of the Security Council, presumably).

Of course, the US should lay out a few clear conditions first, the main one being that, should the North Korean regime collapse (whether sooner or later), the people there will be guaranteed their right to democratic self-determination. They must be given the choice to become an independent state or to unite with the South, should the South agree to this as well. In such a situation, international aid, particularly from China, the US, and Japan, would be helpful in assisting South Korea in absorbing the devastatingly impoverished North.

With this foundational agreement set, the US could leave most of the footwork up to China. China is a major power, striving to Great or even Super Power status, at least economically. For the moment, it has shied away from pushing for these goals politically and militarily, content to simply make deals wherever the money is good and leave the US responsible for maintaining order and allow the free trade from which China (and everyone else, the US included, of course) so greatly benefits. It may be unsettling to some to imagine China as a Great Power (this author included), but there is an air of near inevitability about the progression. It is therefore better that China start practicing the work aspect that its weight brings with it. The US can help it do that while benefiting itself. Stepping back and letting China in would do nothing to reduce the relative distance between the two states in capabilities. Perceptions to this effect arising out of the appearance of a concession to China would be irrelevant and wrong. After all, how would it be a concession to nudge China to do more?


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