Giving Beijing The Shivers

20 Apr

SK Nuclear DrillThe longer April’s tensions on the Korean peninsula continue into May, the more incentive there is for bad ideas to put a quick end to the uncomfortable predicament to froth on the surface of the swamp.

As concern about North Korea’s bellicose behavior deepens, calls are growing among pundits and politicians in the United States for China to “do something” about its obnoxious ally. The underlying assumption is that Beijing has the power at least to compel Pyongyang to end its saber rattling and probably to force Kim Jong-un’s regime to mothball its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.

As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a tendency in the West to overestimate China’s influence on North Korea—unless Beijing is willing to embrace the drastic option of severing food and energy shipments to the hermit republic. But the United States has given Chinese leaders no incentive to incur the risk of having the North Korean state unravel, which could lead to both a refugee crisis and the prospect of a united Korea allied militarily with the United States.

For Beijing to take such a gamble, either there would have to be a large potential reward for action or an equally large potential downside for inaction. Current U.S. policy includes neither feature, and that has to change. If Washington is not willing to offer Beijing the one “carrot” that might cause Chinese leaders to dump the country’s troublesome client—ending the U.S. alliance with Seoul upon Korean reunification—the Obama administration must boost China’s anxiety level.

The most effective way to do that is to invoke the specter that South Korea and Japan might decide to build their own nuclear arsenals if North Korea continues its menacing ways, especially its quest for nuclear weapons. Chinese officials would not be happy about a South Korean nuclear arsenal, and the last thing in the world they want to see is a nuclear-armed Japan.

Playing with fear is unpredictable. There’s no telling what ugly personalities and dynamics that could get churned up by dealing with the dark side of a major power’s leadership. Of course, granting “carrots” encourages corruption. But Carpenter does have a little insight: that calculation of advantage is the key to stability.

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