Wait­ing for China

If Bei­jing re­ally wor­ries about war, why won’t it sit on Kim Jong-un?

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL -

Ev­ery­body talks a good game of peace, good­will and other good stuff from the side­lines of the noisy war of words be­tween the United States and North Korea, but none of those side­line war­riors wants to be seen do­ing any of the heavy lift­ing.

“Once a war re­ally hap­pens,” says Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi, “the re­sult will be noth­ing but mul­ti­ple loss. No one can be­come a win­ner.” His gov­ern­ment, like gov­ern­ments ev­ery­where, urge re­straint, and though none of them are say­ing so, the only re­straint and con­ces­sions any­one can rea­son­ably ex­pect will be from the Amer­i­can side. The Chi­nese have urged the United States to take a hit, come to that, be­fore it strikes back.

But if China is such a peace-lov­ing na­tion, why can’t or won’t it tell Kim Jong-un to cool his jets? China has the abil­ity to starve North Korea, even its fat­tened elites, into do­ing the right thing if it chooses. So why doesn’t it choose, if it’s fret­ting that the world is liv­ing un­der a threat of ex­tinc­tion?

China wants the United States and South Korea to pay the price of sta­bil­ity, and to make sure it doesn’t have to do it. “In­sta­bil­ity gen­er­ated on the [Korean] penin­sula could cas­cade into China,” says Michael Mullen, the former chair­man of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and that would make China’s chal­lenge of pro­vid­ing for its own peo­ple that much more dif­fi­cult.”

China wants most of all to avoid up­set­ting the sta­tus quo in Asia, to keep the Korean punin­sula di­vided for strate­gic rea­sons and to avoid waves of out-of-con­trol refugees, like those that have threat­ened to swamp the United States and Europe. China started strength­en­ing its bor­ders a decade ago, build­ing a fence of barbed-wire and ra­zor-wire in that now dis­tant day when such things were imag­ined to be ef­fec­tive ob­sta­cles.

Bei­jing in­curred the wrath of hu­man-rights groups when it promised to send refugees back to North Korea, to dis­cour­age the waves, and the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee es­ti­mates that 30,000 to 60,000 North Kore­ans have es­tab­lished res­i­dence in China. Some pri­vate res­cue or­ga­ni­za­tions say the real num­ber is sev­eral times that.

Some an­a­lysts ar­gue that China is am­biva­lent about its prom­ise to de­fend North Korea when boom comes to shove, but that’s hardly re­as­sur­ing amidst the ver­bal can­nonad­ing be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang. Bon­nie Glaser of the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton says China has tried to per­suade North Korea to re­voke the clause in its 1961 treaty com­mit­ting it to come to Py­ongyang’s as­sis­tance if at­tacked, and Bei­jing warned Kim Jong-un last week, when it urged the United States to take the first hit, that if he at­tacks first he’s on his own.

China, like most Asian na­tions, puts a pre­mium on “face” — it’s some­times called “side” in the Amer­i­can South — and takes a dim view of sanc­tions and other pres­sure tactics to dis­cour­age bad be­hav­ior. “They tend to see pub­lic mea­sures as hu­mil­i­at­ing and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.” This is an Asian ver­sion of Theodore Roo­sevelt’s fa­mous ad­mo­ni­tion to “walk softly and carry a big stick.” But in the present mo­ment none of that seems to sat­isfy, and the scary beat goes on.

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