Thursday, January 06, 2005
Ask China to invade North Korea and install a less-odious regime?
Here's my immediate reaction to the very suggestion: it is more proof that China is winning the diplomatic game in Asia. As I've argued before, our problem with the situation in North Korea is that every possible action by the United States strengthens China. If we appease North Korea, that tells Japan and South Korea that either America no longer considers North Korea a threat (in which case why does South Korea in particular need the alliance with us?) or that we're unwilling to confront the threat (in which case what good is the alliance to either country?). Either conclusion strengthens the argument that their most important relationship is not with the U.S. but with China. If we take an aggressive line against North Korea, we alarm South Korea, who is most likely to suffer if the situation ultimately deteriorates into a shooting war. South Korea would certainly turn against America if attacked by North Korea in response to an unprovoked American attack on the North; it would also logically tilt towards China out of self protection if America merely ramped up its hostility to the North. So either appeasement or confrontation helps China and hurts America's position in Northeast Asia. And Southeast Asian allies are likely to draw similar conclusions.
Asking China to invade North Korea would even more profoundly enhance China's stature at America's expense - whether China said yes or no! If China agreed, it would surely demand something in return from America - a reaffirmation of our support for reunification with Taiwan, or an end to arms sales to the island, or some other gesture of strong support for the Chinese regime and its claims to the "three T's" - Taiwan, Tibet and east Turkestan. And the evidence would be clear for the rest of Asia to read: America cannot manage problems in the region without Chinese help, and is willing to give China what China wants to get that help.
If China said no, meanwhile, the message would be equally clear: America can't manage things without Chinese help. And China has the ability to say "no" to America! Moreover, China would have made a stand for state sovereignty and against the American program of regime change in states it doesn't like. That would make China a new rallying point for all countries worried about American meddling - not only deeply odious regimes like North Korea's and Burma's, but also more ambiguous regimes like Indonesia that have little to fear directly from China (and would have less to fear after China pointedly refused to invade North Korea). And the question remains: is a North Korean bomb really a profound threat to Chinese interests? After all, so long as China can plausibly claim the ability to restrain North Korea from using such weapons against South Korea, the North Korean bomb is a useful tool for Finlandizing South Korea.
The biggest threat to China from a North Korean bomb is that it will prompt Japan to go nuclear. That would alarm Beijing. But using that prospect as a threat to induce China to take out the Kim regime is risky. Because if China is going to invade North Korea to remove a destabilizing nuclear threat, won't China demand that the U.S. similarly police its own "sphere of influence" to prevent any destabilizing actions?
Here's where I'm going with this. If China invaded North Korea, Taiwan would get three messages. First, they'd see that the United States now considers China a partner, rather than a rival, and hence will be likely to appease China on Taiwan as, for example, we've appeased Russia on Chechnya. This view would be exacerbated if we actually made diplomatic concessions to China on Taiwan in exchange for their invasion of North Korea. Second, they'd see that the PLA is ready and able to depose regimes that they don't like, even when these regimes have fairly substantial armed forces. Third, they'd see that the U.S. is either too overstretched militarily to undertake any new military actions itself (hence our turn to China) or simply unwilling to undertake such actions in the wake of Iraq.
So: how would Taiwan react to these three messages? Logically, they could take one of two paths. They could decide that the game is up and that the only safe course is to pursue a return to Chinese rule. That would give China a new deep-water port on Taiwan's east coast, dramatically expand China's economy, and vastly enhance Chinese prestige around the world, to the detriment of America. The alternative is that they could decide that they would have to deter China themselves now that America was no longer reliable. And that should lead to a Taiwanese effort to acquire nuclear weapons. And that would provoke a major crisis. Since the United States would just have explicitly asked China to remove a nuclearizing regime that was destabilizing the region, it would be hard to see how we could oppose a Chinese attempt to remove a Taiwanese nuclear program by force.
Finally, just one small point. We've adopted a "unilateralist" policy of regime change because supposedly the world can't come to agreement on who needs to be offed, at least not in a timely fashion. We, America, and "coalitions of the willing" composed of (mostly) democratic allies with similar interests will do a better job of policing the world. But here comes a proposal to have *another* nation - not an ally, not a democracy, not someone with whom we have clear common interests - unilaterally act to overthrow an odious regime on the grounds of its odiousness. Why on earth would we want to set such a precedent? And why should we prefer it to an attempt to get action authorized by some international body - fine, the UN, for all its own odiousness - that might bless the action with some legitimacy internationally, and act as a restraint on future unilateral action of this sort by other states? Particularly given that one objection to diplomacy on North Korea is that China would have to approve of any UN-authorized action against them, and China is the power we're outsourcing our "regime change" efforts to in this scenario!
It's depressing to think that anyone is seriously suggesting that the only way we can deal with North Korea is to ask the Chinese to invade and install a new regime. Depressing on so many levels, I don't know how to count them.