Among those offering a way forward in the current North Korea crisis is Ambassador Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in the now-defunct Six Party Talks, and now at the University of Denver. Hill has penned an essay entitled “Strategic Clarity on North Korea.” While it offers no new ideas on how to reduce the danger North Korea poses, it does offer a great deal of advice on how to get China to play a bigger role in helping to deal with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, almost every suggestion is either based on wishful thinking, unsound analysis, or a lack of realism. It profoundly misreads China’s interests, bilateral Sino-U.S. relations, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific, and offers suggestions that if followed will weaken America’s position in the region.
For his argument to have any salience, Hill must dredge up the hoary claim that Beijing is “fed up with [its] client state’s behavior.” As I showed recently, this is a false hope renewed over and over again, in almost exactly the same words by observers all over the political spectrum. Each time Pyongyang commits an outrage, we are assured by government and media alike that China is now really very angry, and thus will be more willing to help us. The only evidence adduced for such an assertion is wispier than the smoke rising from the huts of starving North Korean peasants.
Yet, even in making his claim, Hill engages in at least two logical fallacies. The first is to claim that North Korea is a client state of China, when he admits just a few paragraphs later that, thanks to his execution of China’s top man in the North (who also happened to be his uncle), “China’s leaders know that they cannot rely on the ‘Young General’” Kim Jong-Un. Thus, it is unclear that the North is still a client in any way that would allow Beijing to put meaningful pressure on it.
The second logical fallacy Hill makes regarding Beijing’s “anger” toward North Korea is that, even if the Chinese leadership are indeed upset by Pyongyang’s behavior, their reasons for being so are entirely unconnected with Kim’s attack on Sony or his antagonism to America. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to believe that Beijing will suddenly be willing to help Washington with its problem. To conflate China’s possible, and unproved, annoyance with Kim with Washington’s cold war with the North is to misread the basic strategic environment in Asia. This raises false hopes that there is a potential ground of agreement between Beijing and Washington.
This assertion, however, is just the beginning. Almost as an aside, Hill makes a claim contradicted by all available evidence that Beijing is interested in “mending relations” with its Southeast Asian neighbors thanks to Beijing’s coercive behavior over South China Sea territorial disputes. Hill judges that “China now appears willing to address the disputes multilaterally, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN].” This is a statement that would come as a major surprise to nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others who have faced greater Chinese paramilitary pressure in recent months, and who have unsuccessfully tried to get Beijing to agree to multilateral resolution of the problems, and not just “address” them through endless and meaningless discussion at ASEAN meetings. Such a benign view of China may hold sway in Denver, but it is most certainly not shared throughout much of Southeast Asia.
Back to the main argument, though, and here the wishful thinking that pervades so much of America’s foreign policy is on full display. The presumption is that, given the right set of conditions, China can be enticed into a more cooperative and trusting relationship with the United States in regard to North Korea. In order to do so, Hill calls on Washington to engage China on confidence building discussions over the future of a post-North Korea peninsula. “Giving one another access to deep thinking on the issue could be the best means to encourage cooperation,” he writes, again making two unwarranted logical leaps in one sentence: first, that China would engage in an honest conversation with the U.S. on this issue, and second (again), that it is interested in cooperation. The Chinese would undoubtedly welcome a window into Washington’s deepest thinking while keeping their own opinions safely hidden.
Even worse, Hill writes that “the Chinese today frequently discuss a policy of ‘great country relations’…The US must work with them on that concept.” He either dismisses or is unaware of the Chinese interpretation of that phrase, which is based on a mutual acceptance of spheres of influence. In other words, the new model of great power relations promoted by Beijing is a fig leaf for reducing and eventually eliminating U.S. influence and power in East Asia. Yet, Hill credulously believes we should encourage such Chinese thinking, so as to reap nonexistent cooperation over North Korea.
A final, and astounding, suggestion is that Washington “should encourage better relations between China and South Korea.” There is nothing to fear in such an approach, he writes, since “there is plenty of room for everyone.” If only we could be so sure that Beijing sees it that way, and we can be pretty sure that it does not. After all, Hill has just told us that China is worried about a future Korean peninsula united and tilted toward America. If encouraged in their relationship with the South, why should we assume Beijing will play by liberal, Marquis of Queensbury rules of international behavior, instead of pushing as much advantage as it can through a combination of blandishment and intimidation? Beijing’s great goal is to rupture America’s alliances throughout the region, and this suggestion is a way of doing it for them. In fact, if South Korea sees its main ally pushing it closer to Beijing, why wouldn’t it take the hint, or Japan or Australia, for that matter? If one thinks America has no future role to play in Asia, then this is the 21st century equivalent of Lenin’s statement that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.”
And what is the grand policy that will make all this hodge-podge of wishful thinking and misguided analysis come to fruition? A “strategic reengagement,” an alchemist’s dream of making the gold of perpetual peace from the dross of great power competition. To wish such a reformulated relationship does not make it so, especially when there is no evidence that one half of the projected union is in any way willing to play such a role. This is a classic, and naïve, example of the projection of one’s own hopes on another.
But the reader must assume that Hill, as experienced a diplomat as he is, knows all this. After all, he gives the game away, having prefaced all of his solutions with the statement, “Assuming that China’s leaders are aware that their relationship with one of the world’s worst-behaved regimes will not further their goal of global engagement….” He surely is winking at us, as it is, in fact, an entirely unwarranted assumption that Beijing believes its goal of global engagement (whatever that may mean) is harmed by its relations with North Korea. After all, nearly two decades of support for the Kim family has resulted in no negative effect on China’s trade with the rest of the world, membership in international organizations, or high-level meetings. In fact, Beijing would be entirely justified in concluding that its aid to North Korea is utterly overlooked by the rest of the world, and most especially by the United States.
What Hill never attempts to address is the most basic question of what China would gain from cooperation with the United States over North Korea. There is every reason to believe, instead, that it has concluded its interest lies precisely in enabling a disruptive regime in North Korea that frustrates Washington and has tied up intellectual and material resources for decades. Why would China want to surrender that advantage? Its relations with the U.S. are already going as well as could be hoped.
There is a great deal in this essay, and it surely will be read avidly in Beijing, and probably Pyongyang. Unfortunately, it provides little help and lots of dangers for the United States. Let’s hope the Obama administration ignores it in its tired entirety.