North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs present the United States with no good options, but China’s posture is a foil for its wider strategic objectives.
Conventional military action appears not a viable option. Pyongyang’s artillery batteries could unleash devastation on Seoul before U.S. forces could destroy its nuclear capability.
China, as North Korea’s principle economic partner, holds the keys but has only taken limited steps. Its vote in favor of U.N. Security Council economic sanctions notwithstanding, it remains the regime’s major trading partner. It would prefer not to instigate an economic crisis that could cause millions of refugees to rush into China or reunification of the peninsula under a U.S.-aligned regime.
The United States has broader issues with Beijing — China’s territorial claims and militarization of artificial islands in neutral waters of the South China Sea, the defense of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and the $300 billion bilateral trade deficit.
Skillfully, Beijing has suggested it might do more regarding North Korea if the United States scaled back joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea — i.e., Beijing will lean harder on the rogue state if America forsakes its allies.
The United States should not accede to such blackmail.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposes offering China two choices: the United States would recognize North Korea and forswear a regime change in return for hard, verifiable limits on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. Otherwise, the United States will “heavily populate Asia with missile defenses,” shoot down anything that “looks like a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile” and commit to whatever means necessary to “contain this regime.”
The United States recognizing such a harshly repressive regime would smack of appeasement, and China won’t bite anyway. Beijing likes the peninsula organized as it is and although it screams U.S. defensive missiles could be used against it, Beijing has no reason to worry if it has no intention of launching an intercontinental ballistic attack. Moreover, the unending crisis distracts Washington’s attention from the other above-mentioned Sino-American issues.
A permanently beefed up military presence beyond antiballistic missiles could prove quite costly to the United States. It would stretch the Navy and Air Force — already overextended by years of war in the Middle East, troubles in Eastern Europe with Russia, and Obama-era defense spending cuts — to the point of limiting their ability to counter Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
China has been quite adroit in tying down U.S. presidents on narrow issues and stalling, while it undertakes other provocations. For example, persuading the Trump administration to negotiate on trade in a few highly focused areas such as beef, while it targets for whole capture the microprocessor, artificial intelligence and other high-tech industries.
The United States needs a radical realignment of commercial and security relations with China.
We don’t need Beijing’s permission to deploy defensive missile systems in Asia or let North Korea become a bargaining chip on other problems. Rather, the United States should pursue a three-pronged strategy.
In the South China Sea, the Navy should more aggressively challenge Chinese occupation of the artificial islands, and the United States should demand China evacuate the islands.
On trade, the United States should demand that China manage down its bilateral trade surplus — according to a schedule of specified dollar targets — and open its markets to U.S. investment and intellectual property on the terms its companies enjoy in the West. Or the United States will impose a 40 percent tariff on Chinese exports and subject Chinese investment and intellectual property in the United States to policies that mirror the Chinese regime.
On North Korea, the United States should pursue Mr. Gates’ second option and deny access to the U.S. banking system any business in China doing business with North Korea — and their Chinese banks as well.
Overall, we should refuse to negotiate on any of these initiatives until China agrees to a new regime resolving all these disputes and takes tangible, complete actions that address our concerns.
Nothing would hit China harder than the economic and trade sanctions proposed — and they would hurt Americans too. However, U.S. strategic objectives should not be sold out for commercial gain — just as our commercial objectives should not be sacrificed to appease an emerging Asian power.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1
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