Can US-Chinese cooperation tame North Korea?

Can US-Chinese cooperation tame North Korea?

When U.S. President Donald Trump instructed the U.S. military to strike Syria because of its reported use of chemical weapons, Chinese President Xi Jinping was on an official visit to the U.S. Some even suggest that the two presidents were at dinner, sitting next to one another, as the U.S. tomahawks were pounding the Al-Shayrat airbase in Homs. A very unusual social talk, if it was social at all, must have happened at that dinner.

Clearly, if the U.S. is one of the major global powers of today, China is another. So is Russia. Today, global balances are very much dependent on the interdependence of relations between these global powers. On major problems of the world, how they compare notes, how they discuss and how they plan to act in coordination, if not necessarily in cooperation, matters. North Korea is one of those problems. So, U.S.-Chinese talks must have addressed the issue as well.

Nuclear weapons unfortunately are becoming a much more serious challenge to world security and stability than it used to be during the Cold War era. Then, there was the thrilling “balance of terror” between the two camps and threat of nuclear warfare was a major deterrent because of its mutually assured destruction capability. Ironically, this concept of mutual destruction seemed to guarantee the non-use of nuclear weapons because of the second-strike capability of the first hit.

Today, the dissemination of nuclear weapons is a more serious threat to world security. The fact that they may end up in the hands of terrorist organizations, or under the control of unpredictable, irrational and irresponsible state leaders increases the risk of their use. North Korea is believed to be under the control of such a leader. His threats and intention to proceed with an ambitious nuclear missile programme is a source of instability in the Pacific region. U.S. is concerned, so is China.

When the U.S. hit Syria, many interpreted this strike as an indirect message to North Korea as well. Parallel to the strikes against Syria, U.S. had also forwarded five vessels belonging to its Navy Strike Group to the Korean Peninsula. This show of determination was evidently in response to North Korean leader’s decision to try a nuclear test explosion on April 14.

Meanwhile, China has apparently suspended the flights of Air China to Pyongyang as well as its coal imports from North Korea, a very important source of export revenues for the latter. It is obvious that the U.S. and China are coordinating their efforts to give all the necessary messages to North Korea that they are unhappy with what the country’s leader pursues as power-based foreign policy.

China probably understands that a country like North Korea can only feel secure in the region if it walks on a dangerous path like developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Yet, China is aware that such weapons are also a source of instability, particularly in the hands of a leader like the one in North Korea.

North Korea carried out its so-called nuclear test on April 14. It is not clear whether it was a missile with nuclear warhead or not, but it is obvious that the missile exploded after it was launched, hence the test failed. 

Tension in the Pacific is high because China, South Korea and Japan are concerned that the U.S. might take a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Such a strike cannot eradicate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities entirely. It may, however, become devastating for South Korea and the region because North Korea’s retaliation would be disproportionate and indiscriminate.

Hot spots around the world are increasing. The Middle East is a major source of instability. The civil war in Syria has every potential to spread into a wider regional conflict. The Korean Peninsula, on the other hand, presents a more dangerous risk to world security with the possibility of nuclearization involved.

Trump’s decision to hit Syria was based on defending moral high grounds and it was retaliation against the reported use of chemical weapons. In the case of North Korea, U.S. strategic planning would definitely be retaliation to any aggression against South Korea, Japan or American assets. Unless it happens, we would probably continue to live in tension, but will expect skillful diplomacy and efficiency of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and China to become a deterrent factor. If diplomacy fails, the world may encounter serious destruction. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Asia, therefore, is expected to avoid such consequences.