Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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China’s stance on North Korea could lead to war
The Times - May 31st 2010

The world is anxious about the Kim regime but greater disasters lie ahead if its superpower neighbour fails to act

Try this quiz. You lead a rising economic superpower, with ambitions for global political power. You have pledged to pursue a "peaceful rise" and to work through the United Nations wherever possible to maintain international stability. Out of the blue, your unruly neighbour, an ally and quasi-dependant for the past 60 years, torpedoes a warship of its own neighbour, killing 46 sailors, and then, when accused of this crime, threatens all-out war. What do you do?

Virtually nothing, is China´s answer so far, for that is the superpower and the neighbour is North Korea. Officially, Chinese leaders are still "reviewing the evidence" presented by an international team that was asked by South Korea to investigate the sinking in March of the Cheonan, evidence that has convinced virtually everyone else that a North Korean torpedo was to blame.

A faraway country of which we know little, is what many are tempted to say of Kim Jong Il´s northeast Asian enclave, paraphrasing Neville Chamberlain´s notorious line about Czechoslovakia in 1938. The North Koreans have a long history of outrageous behaviour, from killing most of the South Korean Cabinet on a visit to Rangoon in 1983, to living off counterfeiting and cigarette-smuggling, to firing missiles over Japan, to testing nuclear weapons twice in the past four years. Recently, in negotiations they have mostly proved to have been after something, and have scuttled back into their "Hermit Kingdom" when they got it.

That is why much of the attention given to the Cheonan sinking and the threats of war since March has been devoted to working out what the North Koreans might be up to. Are they after something again, is a succession battle under way, or was the sinking just a mistake? Beyond a few flutters in the stock markets, especially in Asia, much of the world has carried on worrying more about the euro and BP´s oil spill than a new Korean war, despite 2010 being the 60th anniversary of the start of the old one.

It is time to worry rather more, by focusing instead on China and its policy towards North Korea. For what China´s reaction should tell us is that China´s interests in the Korean Peninsula are different from those of the West, of South Korea or of Japan. And in that divergence of interest lies danger: it makes North Korea the likeliest flashpoint for a potential conflict between China and America.

On other issues, the Chinese leadership is widely lauded for its fast and effective decision making — on bulldozing old city centres, for example, or building motorways and power stations, or giving aid to African governments in return for mining rights. Far better than those fusty old democracies, mutter the admirers. So why, we should all be asking, are they so slow to make up their minds about North Korea and its acts and threats of war?

The official line is that China is concerned about stability in North Korea and fears a huge influx of refugees across its long border with that country if Mr Kim´s regime should collapse. A further line, peddled more quietly by Chinese officials, is that China doesn´t really have much influence over those strange, unpredictable Koreans. So all it can do is take part in the six-party talks over North Korea´s nuclear weapons programme, an on-off exercise that gathers together America, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas, urge everyone to show restraint, and hope for the best.

This line, always pretty thin, is looking ever thinner. The idea that Chinese security forces would not be capable of crowd control in the border region beggars belief. Dealing with refugees might be awkward, and even costly, but as a reason for tolerating military adventurism it is simply not credible. Nor is the notion of Chinese impotence: most of North Korea´s trade is with China, most of its oil supply comes from there, and virtually the only foreign companies in North Korea are Chinese. It would be pretty easy for China to "keep its boot on Kim´s neck", as Americans like to say these days.

So why doesn´t it? The answer, surely, must be that China prefers to keep North Korea the way it is. Strategically, it provides a buffer against Japan and averts the prospect of a troublesome and eventually powerful unified Korea in the future. This has been the case ever since Mao Zedong sent in Chinese troops to rescue the North during the Korean War of 1950-53. This preference would not matter much as long as the North Korean regime looked basically stable and was a danger principally to its own people. But this is no longer the case.

Imagine what could happen when Kim Jong Il dies — which, being 68 and unhealthy, he might suddenly do. Suppose there is a struggle over the succession, one that could turn bloody, given that North Korea is said to be the world´s most militarised society. America, well aware that North Korea has about half a dozen nuclear warheads, will feel an urgent need to send troops in to seize nuclear materials. South Korea will, like Helmut Kohl in 1989, feel an urgent, historic need to ignore the huge costs and push for unification: the North is family, after all.

And China? My guess is that it would send its troops to the border, and probably across it, "in the interests of stability", but actually to keep North Korea independent and under Chinese tutelage. The stage would thus be set for the first 21st-century confrontation between two superpowers.

This is one of the biggest risks facing the world. To reduce it, China needs to be engaged in open dialogue about North Korea, its behaviour and, above all, its future. It may not be seemly to discuss what to do when a regime collapses, especially one of an ally, but that is increasingly necessary in the case of the Kim dynasty.

Communication between the Chinese and American militaries remains patchy, with efforts to set up hotlines and the like slow to come to fruition. The chances of a misunderstanding in a moment of tension are high. Communication between the political leaderships is better, if still very stilted. The Cheonan sinking could be the last chance to force China to face up to the fact that its North Korean dependant is not just embarrassing but dangerous, to force it to discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula, to force it to join the 21st century rather than staying stuck in the 1950s. Unless that happens, next time it could really be war.


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