The Economist argues that the “best card in a bad hand”—the one the U.S. holds—is to get China to reign in North Korea. Indeed, American pleading seems to have convinced Beijing to coax North Korea some. However, a much stronger effect might be achieved if the U.S. addressed China’s core interests in the matter.
China fears—not without reason—that if the North Korean regime collapses, and the two Koreas unite, the U.S. will move its troops north to the border of China. Given that the U.S. is already positioning its military resources in a forward position, including daily patrols of China’s shoreline, China is not welcoming more troops on its border. A U.S. commitment not to move its troops north of the DMZ and eventually—if Korea is effectively united and democratic—remove our troops altogether surely will pique China’s interest. Better yet, such a promise might make China feel much freer to twist North Korea’s arm.
Next, China is concerned that if the North Korean regime collapses, millions of starving North Korean citizens will flood into China. Reviving the commitment to help what is now North Korea to feed its people and develop, if it gives up its nuclear arms and militaristic posture, is the second-best way to win a true Chinese commitment to help defang North Korea. China is wealthy enough to help North Korea on its own. South Korea can chip in. Hence the U.S. aid does not need to be particularly large. But, as previous deals made by President Clinton and undermined by Bush suggest, it may make for the needed sweetener. I am not against exhorting nations to do better or help us (although, especially when this is carried out in public, it makes us seem weak), and I do not deny that such soft power moves can have some effects. But often one does even better if one speaks to the “real” interests of the other side.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).
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