China must weigh its options

Reuters

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart in Moscow February 22, 2013. Russia and China regret Pyongyang's recent nuclear test but oppose any foreign military intervention in North Korea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday after talks with Yang.

Article Highlights

  • The risk for China in cooperating on North Korea is losing a buffer state without gaining a diminution of allied power in Asia.

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  • If Kim and his arsenal remain, China’s great fear that Japan and South Korea will acquire nuclear weapons becomes more likely.

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Editor's note: This piece originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: Will North Korea's threats and continued testing cause more proliferation in the region?

On North Korea, China faces a geopolitical dilemma. Although the United States, South Korea and Japan view North Korea as a pressing threat, they all also view China as a looming one. Even if China were to work with other regional players to bring down the Kim Jong-un's regime, it will still face U.S.-allied nations arraying to balance its power. Even with Kim gone, both Japan and South Korea will want a substantial U.S. presence in the region. They will also continue to build up their military capabilities to hedge against China becoming more bellicose. The risk for China in cooperating on North Korea is losing a buffer state without gaining a diminution of allied power in Asia.

The Obama administration certainly has a strong case to present to China that it is better off without the Kim regime. Sino-U.S. relations would be strengthened, and the dangers of a war on the Korean Peninsula would decline. In addition, without the Kim regime and its weapons of mass destruction, South Korea and Japan would be less likely to acquire their own nuclear weapons. In addition, Chinese leaders care about their international reputation, which would improve greatly if it became part of the solution to a decades-old problem.

The contrary case is also very credible, and from Beijing’s perspective, more troublesome. If Kim and his arsenal remain, China’s great fear that Japan and South Korea will acquire nuclear weapons becomes more likely. Both countries have substantial nuclear knowledge acquired through longstanding civilian nuclear programs. Washington can decrease the likelihood of a nuclear Japan and South Korea if it modernizes its own nuclear weapons program to deal with the multitude of nuclear threats it faces today, and abandons its obsessive focus on bilateral nuclear reductions with Russia.

As Beijing joins the “big boys club” of great powers, it is learning a truism of foreign policy – it is the constant process of selecting the least bad among terrible options. In this case, abandoning North Korea and/or helping bring down Kim is the least bad option. The other options would result in a multipower nuclear competition in Asia.

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