The following is excerpted from Steven W. Mosher’s forthcoming book, Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order, to be published by Regnery Publishing on November 27, 2017.
Beijing should reign in its only ally, or cut its ties with the rogue regime.
Imagine Beijing’s reaction if South Korea were splashing down missiles off the coast of China, carrying out underground nuclear tests, and regularly threatening to turn Beijing and Shanghai into radioactive dust.
China would be demanding crippling international sanctions against Seoul and would probably threaten a unilateral naval blockade of the peninsula as well. But its chief course of action would be to lodge a formal protest with Washington, demanding in no uncertain terms that it rein in its East Asian ally.
“Sever your mutual security treaty with Seoul and join with us in completely isolating it, politically and economically,” Chinese President Xi Jinping would demand of President Trump. “If you do not, we will be forced to treat any attack by South Korea on China as an attack by the United States.”
In the real world, as opposed to the above fictional scenario, neither South Korea, nor any other U.S. ally, would be allowed to behave in such a reckless manner.
In fact, as soon as we learned that “South Korea” was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, we would have taken steps to halt its program, as we did in Taiwan back in the eighties. We would also have urged our ally, in no uncertain terms, to turn off the threatening rhetoric.
If our errant ally continued carrying out nuclear or missile tests in violation of international treaties and sanctions we would be forced to publicly condemn its dangerously destabilizing behavior.
And because we would not want to be caught up in a war between China and “South Korea” of our ally’s own making we would sever that relationship. There is no question but that we would unilaterally abrogate our mutual security treaty with a nation so gone rogue.
The United States would, in short, behave like a responsible great power.
Now substitute “North Korea” for “South Korea” and ask yourself: Has China has done any of the things that a responsible great power would do when confronted with such a dangerously unhinged ally?
The answer to the above question is an unequivocal No. But China has not merely done nothing, which would have been irresponsible enough. The evidence shows that Beijing, far from discouraging Kim Jong Un’s missile madness, is quietly and deliberately encouraging it.
Despite promising to put pressure on Pyongyang, China has privately continued to aid the rogue regime in various ways. This is the primary reason why the six rounds of sanctions imposed by the UN against North Korea have been ineffective. In fact, a recent analysis by John Park of Harvard University and Jim Walsh of MIT concluded that, with China’s help, North Korea has actually improved its military procurement capability in recent years.
Moreover, as other countries stop trading with the rogue regime, China is picking up the slack. As U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted before the U.N. Security Council in April, fully nine-tenths of North Korea’s foreign trade is now with China, which has become Pyongyang’s chief lifeline to the wider world.
There is no doubt that Beijing could quickly cripple the North Korean economy by, for instance, closing the border. But China thus far has refused to use its ancient stratagem of “removing the firewood from under the pot” (Fu di chou xin), even though it knows it has the ability to eviscerate Kim Jong Un’s ability to wage war—or build advanced weaponry.
At the same time that some mouthpiece in Beijing is issuing a mild condemnation of Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, a steady stream of trucks and trains continue to rumble across the Dandong crossing into North Korea. These carry all manner of Chinese-made goods including, we now know, the transporter-erector-launcher trucks used to carry and launch Kim Jong Un’s long-range mobile missiles.
Some analysts believe that China may even have supplied North Korea with its JL-1 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), along with access to the military version of its GPS system, Beidou, to help improve the accuracy of this and other missiles.
Aside from openly trading with—and perhaps covertly aiding–its North Korean ally, China also helps it to buy time. Each time North Korea conducts a nuclear test or fires off a missile, Beijing counsels the U.S. that the only way to resolve the tension on the Korean Peninsula is to exercise strategic patience, enter into negotiations, and gradually build trust.
From the American point of view past negotiations with North Korea have accomplished nothing. From the Chinese point of view, however, they have accomplished precisely what they were intended to. They have bought North Korea the time—and over a billion dollars in American aid—that it needed to build more missiles and more nukes, and to start learning how to pair them together.
The good news is that Washington finally seems to be getting it. After twenty years of trying to buy off the Pyongyang regime—which only whets the appetite of its rulers for the next round of extortion—we are at last putting pressure directly on its principal international backer: China.
The Trump administration seems to understand that the only way to effectively deal with North Korea’s serial deceit is to put pressure on China to reign in its unhinged client state.
China is predictably apoplectic that the U.S. is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to its machinations. In fact, when this new policy was announced in July, Beijing’s spokesman went on a long rant, shouting “enough with blaming China for North Korea!”
But if China were to abrogate its mutual defense treaty with North Korea, announcing that it would no longer come to Pyongyang’s aid if it were attacked, it would be clear to everyone, not least to Kim Jong Un himself, that he was on his own.
There are several reasons why Core Leader Xi Jinping will refuse to abandon the PRC’s only ally unless he is left with no other options. Like Chairman Mao Zedong before him, Xi sees North Korea as a buffer state between China and U.S.-allied South Korea.
Mao often referred to the strategic relationship between China and North Korea as being “As close as lips and teeth,” and worried that “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” (Chun wang chi han). Xi is just as worried that the collapse of North Korea and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula would bring U.S. troops right up to the Yalu River.
Kim Jong Un’s hostile rhetoric and saber rattling also enable China to work its “disturbing the water to catch a fish” (Hun shui mo yu) stratagem. In this ploy—one of the better known of the famous “36 Stratagems”—you deliberately sow confusion and then, under its cover, secretly pursue your own ends.
By distracting Washington’s attention from Beijing’s own adventurism, Kim provides China with the opportunity to assert its “core interests” in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
There is only one way to convince Beijing that the Pyongyang regime and its continual provocations are no longer a strategic asset but a strategic liability. We must make it clear that we hold China directly responsible for the behavior of its closest ally.
From now on, instead of letting ourselves be held hostage to Pyongyang’s bad behavior, we need to hold China accountable for North Korea’s good behavior. China must either rein in its erstwhile ally—which is to say force it to end its nuclear program and its provocative missile launches—or it must cut its ties with this rogue nuclear power that threatens the stability of the region.
President Trump should demand that China, as a responsible great power, not only close its border with North Korea, but also sever its mutual defense treaty with its erstwhile ally. It is China, after all, that by guaranteeing to come to the aid of its North Korea, has created the space in which that rogue nation has developed both nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Without China’s defensive umbrella, without its technology, without its missile and reactor components, without its trade, North Korea would never have become the kind of threat that it is today.
Beijing already has more than enough reasons to end the pact, if it chose to do so. The terms of the Sino-Korea Mutual Defense Treaty require both China and North Korea to “safeguard peace and security,” a provision that Pyongyang breaches every time it launches a long-range missile or detonates a nuke. Moreover, Pyongyang’s development and possession of nuclear weapons is a violation of the United Nations treaty on non-proliferation, to which Beijing is a signatory, and so arguably constitutes a second violation of their pact.
Back in Mar-a-Lago in March, Xi Jinping gave Donald Trump a lecture on how “Korea used to be a part of China.”
As long as North Korea is bound to China by a mutual defense treaty, Trump should now respond, it still is.