It’s as if Obama has never taken the trouble to know that the dealings between nations do hinge on real and particular issues, even when – especially when – the nations come into conflict. In one way or another, we always negotiate our way into conflict; it erupts when one side says “no,” and the other side won’t be satisfied with that. Very often, there is a very good reason for the “no.” And up until the “no” happens, the nations are “talking” real specifics with each other, whether directly, obliquely, or through an intermediary. The meaning of force deployments in this context is generally unmistakable. It is clear what each side wants, and what the force is intended to convey.
In the real world, if you haven’t got anything specific to say, you shouldn’t be slinging major weapon systems around as if you did. We don’t expect better from Kim Jong-Un, who was raised to be a Marxist nut throwback. (We’ll see if there turns out to be method in his madness.) But we should require better of the president of the United States. What does Obama want North Korea to do? What is his policy on the Koreas? How does he think American security is affected by them? What is his vision for a pacified East Asia, taking into account our ally Japan and the great nations Russia and China, whom we cannot simply ignore? What is the end-state in view?
None of these questions can be answered, because Obama hasn’t addressed them. That is the real context in which China has to make decisions. When Beijing mobilizes military forces at the border with North Korea, it’s not because the Chinese think it will be necessary to use them to control Kim. It’s because they aren’t sure what Obama is going to do. The purpose is to clarify China’s interest in the situation, and the reality that intervening in North Korea will result in a confrontation with China.
China can Benefit from a Stymied United States
I don’t think China is behind Kim’s current brinkmanship; specifically, I don’t think China has to be. Kim can think this stuff up himself. But given the view of Obama held by China’s leadership, I do assess that the Chinese would be happy to see the U.S. twist in the wind, if Kim can find a way to confound us after a season of U.S. threat-making. The Chinese are in no hurry to settle this situation down.
If Pyongyang brings off another missile launch, and the U.S. does nothing – if the reactor at Yongbyon is started up again, and the U.S. does nothing – tensions will be raised in East Asia for the foreseeable future, and U.S. power will not have been able to reduce them. American prestige in the region will decline, the longer Kim can continue to do the occasional bad thing, while barking out his sclerotic-commie-regime imbecilities.
The U.S. is likely at some point to be faced with the need to do more than “contain” the situation, and at that point, it’s a good question whether our allies will still have confidence in us. If press disclosures about sending in mighty warships don’t deter Kim from launching missiles and producing more plutonium, what then? How many “pinpricks” from him will Seoul have to absorb? What will change in the U.S-Japan relationship, if Tokyo has to manage a state of real and constant alarm about missiles from North Korea?
The Kim regime is a superb convenience for Beijing: an ally with excellent potential to get someone like Obama to imply more than he can deliver, when it comes to regional security. China doesn’t have to do it herself; she can contain the U.S. reaction by mobilizing on the border, and let Kim’s antics flummox us and undercut our prestige and influence in the Far East. China is playing a long game – one that was handed to her by Obama himself – and the unknown variable in China’s game is not Kim but Obama.
Has China assessed him correctly? In terms of whether he would actually take military action against North Korea, I believe so. The Chinese estimate that he will be deterred from that by a quiet display of will from China. They are probably right. Whatever happens, Obama will sell it successfully with the American public and the Western press as a victory – but if it’s actually a U.S. backdown, the South Koreans and Japanese will see that clearly. And they’re the ones who matter to China’s calculation that the Obama policy on shifting America’s emphasis to the Pacific can be neutralized.