Is China capable of showing restraint as the US has with North Korea?
A number of well-meaning articles have been written about how China isn’t understood regarding its stance on North Korea, or that the West can no longer deal with China’s rise. However, they completely misinterpret why the United States, India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Bhutan, the Philippines and the entire Asian hemisphere is considering joining a nuclear arms race against North Korea since China will not control its proxy, or stop oil exports to North Korea or the ascent of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Meanwhile, many would argue that North Korea should have nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against the US, Japan, and even China itself. If Ukraine had kept its nuclear arsenal, Russia would never have dared annex Crimea and continue to threat Ukraine’s eastern borders and territory. The Iranians could make the same argument: Look at what the Americans did to Iraq – we don’t want the same thing to happen to our regime, government and way of life.
US President Donald Trump this week gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which he called North Korea, Iran and Venezuela grave threats – but particularly North Korea and the 2015 nuclear deal agreed with Tehran by the US administration of Barack Obama. Trump called that deal an embarrassment to the US, since it could put Israel in the horrible position of having to use its own nuclear arsenal against Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Critics are blasting Trump for his General Assembly speech, and asking why he could not be conciliatory like French President Emmanuel Macron, who supposedly gave “the exact opposite speech to the General Assembly”. But why should he? No one has ever called on France to be the world’s policeman against hegemonic regimes in Iran, Russia, North Korea and China the way former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen did in 2016.
Imagine Asia without the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet as a deterrent, buffer and protector in the South China Sea disputes. The alternative would be trillions of dollars worth of commercial activity controlled by Communist China to harass Asia with economically and militarily. And the post-World War II worldwide prosperity forged by the US and its allies would be over.
As an example of China’s recalcitrant behavior, the European Union begged China early this month to open up their its to forge closer ties, but the answer was no. Is that the action of a country that wants to rein in North Korea or be a good international citizen? No it isn’t, and the Chinese continue to say one thing and mean another – just as they do with North Korea to the world’s detriment.
Chinese President Xi Jinping says he wants to lead the world away from poverty and war and toward economic liberalization because the US has backed away from that commitment under Trump. Furthermore, he wants to be a progressive leader against environmental devastation by promoting the false Paris Climate Agreement, which won’t do one thing to alleviate Chinese pollution, or the world’s emissions for that matter.
If Xi wants to lead the world, then he should start by getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. China could solve this problem immediately, but it feels that if it did so it would have a failed state on its border. That concern is understandable, but what’s worse, Korea starting a nuclear war or a failed state on your border? Most would say a nuclear war.
Far from being held back, North Korea’s economy is growing with China’s abundant assistance, and who is to say the North won’t become an economic powerhouse like South Korea? But China still clings to its historical World War II grievances, and it infuriates the Communist leadership that the US is still the top economy and military power in the world.
So consider what China would have done if the tables were reversed and, let’s say, South Korea, Japan, India or the EU were continually stating that they were going to blow China off the map. What if all of these US allies were authoritarian dictatorships that brutalized their citizens and hijacked the European or Asian hemisphere with threats to more than a billion Chinese citizens while the US did nothing? How would China react? Maybe Xi would also give an angry speech to the General Assembly the way Trump did.
Moreover, what if Trump or other officials in the US government or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said this was China’s problem and not their concern? Then, what if US largess delivered the only economic lifeline available to the above-mentioned rogue regimes – allowing them unfettered access to military technology and energy resources – which led to nuclear weapons and a fleet of long-range missiles?
What if North Korea and China were both freedom-loving, democratic, benign regimes that housed some of the largest companies in the world the way Japan and South Korea do currently? Would China sit back and allow crazed US-allied leaders to threaten nuclear obliteration of Pyongyang, Hong Kong or Beijing – while knowing this had gone on for decades without any serious consequences?
These were the actions taken by US president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright when they offered North Korea billions in economic relief while being lied to their faces. Would China have done nothing to prevent further duplicitous behavior? That’s difficult to imagine, yet the last two US presidents tried to find peaceful solutions: Obama preached “strategic patience”, and George W Bush tried engagement and negotiations that didn’t work.
American presidents and the US Congress have been vexed by North Korea and China for decades now. Would China have allowed its leadership to be lied to, vexed and harassed for decades without any consequences while the world’s media called them every name in the book and questioned their sovereignty to protect their nation and citizens?
Article 51 of the UN Charter allows for self-defense. The biggest questions China’s defenders aren’t asking is this: How long would China allow an unhinged, tyrannical, infantile dictator to point nuclear warheads at its major cities while allowing the US to feign complete ignorance its happening all the while propping up its rogue allies economies? Probably not very long.
And what if for good measure the Pentagon used US proxies as deterrents to keep the Chinese off balance in the South China Sea and Asia at large? It’s laughable to imagine this scenario, because China would have already engaged in pre-emptive and preventive wars. But somehow the US, Japan, South Korea, India and all of Southeast Asia are supposed to sit back and let this take place without responding.
If there’s one lesson learned from World War II it’s that the Americans went crazy. They turned their economy into one giant war-machine factory that supplied mechanized vehicles to the Soviets and enough aircraft carriers, fighter planes and ultimately nuclear weapons to cripple and obliterate Imperial Japan. The same could be said of the attacks of September 11, 2001: The US went nuts and is still going after jihadis 17 years later.
Charles Krauthammer said it best in a 2004 speech to the American Enterprise Institute titled “Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World”. He described how Americans want to be left alone to eat at McDonald’s and travel to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon while selling stuff around the world, hoping everyone wants to do the same thing. If Xi doesn’t clip the wings of his North Korean proxy, then the McDonald’s-chomping Americans and their allies will go crazy. History proves this fact.
If geopolitics is teaching us anything it’s that enemies become friends during war. And a nuclear war would make the most Trump-hating Americans want revenge if NATO or the US were attacked.
Two world wars should have taught the world that America will fight back, and Chinese leaders are smart enough to understand history. When America got serious in Korea, China felt the brunt of North Korea’s unwise decisions. Let’s hope it doesn’t repeat the same mistake by letting Kim Jong-un launch nuclear weapons at the US or its allies. And its fairly certain that’s exactly where we are headed unless Xi and his officials stop this madness.