Is there any piece of received wisdom more universally invoked than the inane piety that China wants to calm North Korea down, and gets annoyed when the Kims act up? It’s hard to think of many. This hoary premise gets trotted out every time. And every time, it comes up short on explanatory or operational value. It’s never relevant to why the Kim went crazy. Nor is China coming down on a Kim ever the key to settling the Kim’s hash. If the snarling Kim stops yelping for a while, it’s always because the U.S. was induced to do something – intensify some negotiating stance, make some offer, fork over some “aid,” make a concession to China; or maybe just look alert enough to make it the wrong time for a showdown.
You’d think someone would figure this out. When the Kims start throwing food on the floor, somebody’s got an eye on Uncle Sam.
China’s Basic Posture
While it’s quite true that China sets boundaries on a given Kim’s latitude for geopolitical tantrums, it is wrong to suppose that China wants the same thing the U.S., South Korea, or Japan wants. China is only interested in pacifying North Korea if events are not proceeding to China’s advantage. If it is advantageous to China for the Kims to provoke responses out of the U.S., China will let the drama run its course. (As discussed below, that is the case today.)
Conversely, it is equally wrong to imagine that China instigates what the Kims do. The Chinese don’t have to make a Kim’s nonsense up for him; the average Kim is an indefatigable nonsense factory. His natural intransigence and self-cultivated geopolitical alienation are useful for China – a convenience to be prized and guarded.
The Kim psychosis keeps the Korean peninsula divided, with one half of it joined at the hip to China. For China, that is better than any other option – perhaps even better than the most unlikely one: a united Korea joined at the hip to China.
The Chinese want to prevent, at all costs, the opposite situation: a united Korea allied with the United States and friendly with Japan. But a united Korea would tend to be a pain in China’s neck in any case. For the Chinese, keeping Korea divided is a pretty good option, especially when it’s the United States paying to guarantee that the division remains peaceful. China couldn’t afford 60 years of guarding the DMZ.
The Obama Enigma
The underlying geopolitical structure for that assumption is starting to change, however, in part because of the deliberate, announced policy change toward the Pacific Rim on the part of the U.S. But it’s also because, in the context of that new policy, no one is sure what Obama will do. In visibly and enthusiastically rattling the saber at North Korea, he is not doing what previous presidents have done. There is one exception – John F. Kennedy, abetted by Robert McNamara – and their pattern of behavior in foreign policy did not turn out well.
Obama’s pattern (Honduras, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria; the missile defense pull-out from Poland; the Obama nuclear policy and New START) is as confused as JFK’s, if not as bombastic. Predicting what Obama means by the rather humorous “airplane escalation” in Korea – first the B-52s, then the B-2s, then, oh, no, not them, the F-22s – is something of a puzzler. Is he trying to deter something? If so, what? Clearly, he’s not deterring Kim Jong-Un’s saber rattling or missile-launcher moving.
I was amused (yet again) to hear on the TV news yesterday that the U.S. Navy is moving one of its “mightiest warships,” USS John F McCain (DDG-56), to the waters off North Korea. McCain is an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, and as such is certainly mightier than the global-average destroyer. But there are 61 other Arleigh Burkes, in total, and 15 others have the ballistic missile defense (BMD) upgrade that McCain has, including four other Arleigh Burkes homeported, like McCain, in Japan. I’m a big fan of the Arleigh Burke, but I do wonder where the hyperventilating copy billing McCain as one of our “mightiest warships” came from. I really hope it wasn’t a government office.
The question remains: What is Obama hoping to achieve with these moves? It’s like he’s doing an imitation of what he and other academic leftists perceive to be going on when nations come into conflict over something. These leftists tend to characterize events in terms of nations “posturing” and “rattling the saber” at each other, with the implication that it’s all stupid, regrettable, and untethered to meaningful policy issues – and that it could be prevented with a little grown-up intervention.