A ´China First´ strategy for North Korea

04.09.17 Publication:

LONDON – Most pundits agree that the least bad way to
deal with North Korea’s nuclear saber rattling is a continued combination of
tight containment and aggressive diplomacy. Fewer, however, have yet to recognize
that the least bad military option – the
one implied by US President Donald Trump’s insistence that China
for its dangerous neighbor – is a Chinese invasion,
or regime change forced through China’s threat to launch one.

This outcome, which would sharply shift East Asia’s strategic
balance in China’s favor, is not as unlikely as most people think. In fact, its
very plausibility is one reason why it needs to be taken seriously, including
by Chinese military planners. In Trumpian terms, this is a “China First” option
that could help “Make China Great Again.”

Any military intervention, Chinese or otherwise, would
carry huge risks. But before dwelling on them, consider what a successful
Chinese intervention would achieve. For starters, it would put North Korea
right where the country’s post-Korean War history suggests it belongs: under a
Chinese nuclear umbrella, benefiting from a credible security guarantee.

Mao Zedong used to say that his country and North
Korea were “as close as lips and teeth” a fitting description, given Chinese
troops’ role in averting an American victory in the Korean War. But while Japan
and South Korea have remained close allies of the United States during the six
decades since then, hosting US bases and sheltering under US nuclear
protection, China and North Korea have
drifted ever further

As a result, China has little control over its
neighbor and purported ally, and probably scant knowledge of what is going on
there. It could, it is true, tighten the existing siege on North Korea by
cutting trade further and blocking energy supplies. But this might achieve
little beyond pushing Kim Jong-un’s cloistered regime to look for support from its
other neighbor, Russia.

If, as is commonly assumed, North Korea wants some
sort of
security guarantee
in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program, the
only country capable of providing it is China. No American promise would remain
credible beyond the term of the president who gave it, if even that long.

So if China were to combine threats of invasion with a
promise of security and nuclear protection, in exchange for cooperation and possible
regime change, its chances of winning over large parts of the
People’s Army
would be high. Whereas a nuclear exchange with the US
would mean devastation, submission to China would promise survival, and presumably
a degree of continued autonomy. For all except those closest to Kim, the choice
would not be a difficult one.

China’s strategic gains from a successful military intervention
would include not only control of what happens on the Korean Peninsula, where
it presumably would be able to establish military bases, but also regional
gratitude for having prevented a catastrophic war.

No other action holds as much potential to make Chinese
leadership within Asia seem both credible, and desirable, especially if the
alternative is a reckless, poorly planned US-led war. What China needs, above
all, is legitimacy, and intervention in North Korea would provide it.
Successful use of hard power would bring China, to borrow the distinction
coined by Harvard’s
, huge reserves of soft power.

But now to the 64 billion renminbi question: Could it work?
We can’t know the answer for sure, and any military intervention carries great
risks. The Chinese armed forces are now well equipped, but lack comparable battlefield
experience. Their inferior opponents have leaders who might be prepared to use
nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, if they did not simply
accept Chinese terms and surrender.

What we can say with near certainty is that a Chinese land
and sea invasion, rather than an American one, would stand a better chance of
avoiding Kim’s likely response: an artillery attack on the South Korean capital,
Seoul, which lies just a few dozen miles south of the demilitarized zone. Why would
North Korea slaughter its southern brothers and sisters in retaliation for a
Chinese invasion that came with a promise of continued security, if not autonomy?

Moreover, while the Kim regime’s nuclear restraint
could hardly be taken for granted, China would be less likely than the US to be
a target of North Korean missiles. Were a Chinese military option to be
contemplated seriously, some intelligence and missile-defense collaboration
with the US might be worth exploring. Given the risks, it would be hard for the
US to refuse.

This scenario may well never happen. But it is so
logical that the possibility of it should be taken seriously. It is, after all,
China’s best opportunity to achieve greater strategic parity with the US in the
region, while removing a source of instability that threatens them both.