The ongoing crisis over the nuclear policies of Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea appears to run the risk of escalating the geopolitical tension in East Asia and putting relations between the United States and China on a collision course. The North Korean regime has been trying to improve its nuclear weapons and ballistic capability since the early 1990s and to this end conducted several tests, the latest last month. Developing nuclear warheads, delivering them through ballistic missiles, and reaching the shores of the United States through intercontinental missiles constitute the stages of its nuclear policy. Despite the technological deficiencies of the weapons and missiles that North Korea has produced so far, the attempts of the Pyongyang regime to gain strategic immunity against external actors, particularly the United States, as well as threatening the territorial security of South Korea and Japan have already caused great tension in global politics.
Triple alliance against North Korea
North Korea is a pariah state that depends on China for its survival. Since the time it was put under economic embargoes, it has relied on China for energy and food. That suggests that China seems to be the country which has the most leverage on its choices.
The nuclear policies of Pyongyang have certainly irked the two vital allies of the United States in East Asia, namely South Korea and Japan. These two countries still host more than 30,000 American soldiers on their territories each and view their relationship with Washington as indispensable for their security. They are treaty allies of the United States and have aligned their strategic priorities and behaviors with those of the United States since the early Cold War years. At stake is whether Trump’s United States would continue to commit to their security and reassure them against potential geopolitical challenges that might emanate from the rising powers of East Asia, notably China, and the hermit regime in Pyongyang. In such a way to help ease the burden on the shoulders of Washington, both Tokyo and Seoul have pledged to increase their defense expenditures and in the case of Japan, the Abe government has been persistently trying to modify the Japanese constitution so that Japan could develop a world-class military and contribute to U.S.-led security operations across the globe without any constitutional limitations.
The need for the right balance between the US and China
The South Korean and Japanese leaderships are cognizant of the fact that they need to strike the right balance between the United States and China. The former has been the main provider of their security for long, whereas with the latter they have already developed a very beneficial economically interdependent relationship over the last two decades. While China is their number one trading partner, the United States is the main guarantor of their territorial security interests. As far as the crisis over the lunatic nuclear policies of the Pyongyang regime are concerned, Seoul and Tokyo would like to see Washington attribute the same strategic value to South Korean and Japanese territory as the American homeland. Put another way, rather than developing their own nuclear weapons, both Seoul and Tokyo want to see that American nuclear deterrence is still relevant and that the Trump administration takes all kind of measures required to stop the nuclear threat stemming from North Korea. From this perspective, any decoupling of American security interests from those of South Korea and Japan is unwanted. The danger is acute for South Korea and Japan since the Pyongyang regime has already developed the capability of hitting South Korean and Japanese territory. Trump’s “America first” mantra should never result in the United States’ disengagement from East Asia, and Washington should do all it can to ensure Chinese help in solving the North Korean crisis.
That brings us to the dynamics of the American-Chinese security relationship in the context of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear policies. From the American standpoint for various international efforts, of which the six-party talks stand out, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea coming together to reach a solution to this problem through diplomacy, to bear fruit in the context of the North Korean crisis, China should do its best to pressurize the Kim Jong-un regime to change its course. Various U.S. president have on different occasions threatened Pyongyang with the use of brute military force should it cross the red lines. Yet the Americans are keen on the point that this problem should be handled primarily through diplomacy, with China playing the lead role in this process.
US strategies in East Asia
Despite the fact that the Trump administration prioritizes the strengthening of the so-called “rebalancing to East Asia” strategy, which first came into being as the so-called pivot during the first term of Obama’s presidency, in the name of mitigating the negative military, political and economic consequences of China’s rise on America’s primacy in East Asia, it does not want to see its delicate relationship with China severely damaged by the continuation of the North Korean crisis. Despite all the China-bashing of President Trump on the eve of the latest presidential elections, the first 100 days of his rule have demonstrated that the United States still wants to engage China through the decades-long “congagement” strategy. Containment of China through the intensification of United States’ bilateral security relationships with the pro-American regimes and bolstering the American military presence in the region should go hand in hand with efforts to help integrate China to the existing global order as a responsible stakeholder.
The traditional realists in the United States argue that North Korea does not possess a vital security threat to the United States and therefore the latter should outsource the main responsibility of finding an everlasting solution to this problem to regional actors. To them, both South Korea and Japan are powerful enough to cope with the North Korean menace on their own and if they want to go nuclear in this context the United States should encourage them in this endeavor. However, what seems to matter for the United States most in the context of the North Korean crisis is not whether China would put pressure on Pyongyang. It is how traditional U.S. allies in the region would interpret Trump’s North Korea policy as regards the credibility of American commitment to their security. Any American kowtowing to China or strategic indifference to North Korea’s nuclear threat would likely drive Japan and South Korea much closer to China, if not push them to devise unilateral solutions to this crisis. The way the United States responds to the crisis would reveal the limits of the American commitment to the postwar order in East Asia.
From the Chinese perspective, one could safely argue that China does not want to see North Korea’s nuclear policies invite any American military adventure on the Korean peninsula. Xi Jinping values the smooth evolution of China’s “new great power relationship” with the United States more than the continuation of Beijing’s unrivalled tutelage over the North Korean leadership. The Chinese leadership seems to be of the view that China still has a long way to go to match the American primacy in the region and therefore Beijing should do all it can to prevent any particular regional development from damaging its relations with the United States or distracting China’s focus from the continuation of economic development and internal strengthening.
Despite the fact that Beijing does not condone Pyongyang’s dangerous policies, it does not want to see the regime crumble under international embargoes or any American military attack either. The prospects of the two parts of the Korean peninsula being united under the South Korean regime as well as the United States extending its strategic outreach toward the Chinese borders is anathema to the Chinese regime.
The main conclusion one could derive from the above analysis is that neither China nor the United States nor the two traditional American allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, could tolerate North Korea’s nuclear policies causing World War III. When push comes to shove, China, the country that has the most leverage on North Korea, will likely do its best to ensure the current status quo continues in the region.
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