The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why isn’t China doing more?

July 11, 2006

In the comments section to Peter’s latest post about the after-effects of North Korea’s missile test I noted that I was puzzled as to why China has not done more to compel Kim Jong-Il. Given the steps suggested in Japan recently to shift their defensive posture to one that would operationally and legally allow them to carry out preventive strikes against the North (not to mention grumblings about a Japanese nuclear program) it would seem that China’s own interests in not seeing such a shift in Japan would motivate it to act.

Nayan Chanda offers a thought, one that slipped my mind when writing my comment, as to why they haven’t:

“To be sure, China can halt the trains that regularly carry food and fuel to the intransigent socialist brother. But such an action could have unpredictable and undesirable consequences for China. If Chinese pressure resulted in a peaceful collapse of the regime, it would release a human wave of starving refugees across the border and into the Sea of Japan. An international humanitarian intervention in a chaotic North Korea or a rushed reunification with the South might ensue, which could bring American or other foreign forces right up to the Chinese border — a dreaded prospect for Beijing.”

The potential collapse of the DPRK, the massive inflow of refugees, the possibility of a unified Korea, and the potential for direct intervention by the US and possibly Japanese forces right off their border would certainly act as a disincentive to apply the kind of pressure China is capable of. It would appear that China holds sway over the North, but its the equivalent of the ‘nuclear option’, one that could seriously affect China’s strategic situation if employed. Assuming for the moment that this is true I am not sure how the US goes about convincing the Chinese to alter their stance. Is there some kind of a contingency plan that could be cobbled together in which the US and Japan are not part of a post-DPRK stabilization force? Would either agree to such a thing? How could the US and Japan credibly committ to such a reservation? How about one that credibly prevents the type of refugee crisis that Chinese leadership dreads?

Any thoughts?

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.