Why the Chinese Cannot Be Taken Seriously Over the Conflict on the Korean Peninsula

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 26, 2010

I can understand the Chinese being upset over the fact that the United States has decided to make its presence felt in the Yellow Sea, in the aftermath of the recent artillery clash between North and South Korea. What I cannot understand, however, is why the Chinese should be surprised–if indeed they are–that the United States is taking the actions that it is taking. After all, no one really ought to have expected that the U.S. would throw South Korea under the bus by refraining from showing strength and resolve in the aftermath of North Korea’s latest act of aggression. Surely, the Chinese cannot plausibly claim that they were taken by surprise by the American decision to hold joint military exercises with South Korea.

I suppose it is noteworthy that the Chinese “denunciation”–such as it is–is more restrained than previous statements condemning American military exercises in Asia, and that it appears to contain no objections to exercises that occur outside of China’s exclusive economic zone; previous statements sought to establish Chinese hegemony beyond even the economic zone. This indicates, as the story mentions, concern that the conflict on the Korean peninsula might overshadow an upcoming visit by Hu Jintao to Washington, but one ought to hope as well that it indicates a new Chinese recognition of reality; that North Korea’s actions are indeed dangerously destabilizing, and that the United States will not be prevented from establishing a military presence in Asia, or from pursuing its own interests in the region. Attendant to this hope, one would like to believe that quiet diplomacy on the part of the Obama Administration convinced the Chinese that North Korea’s actions are no laughing matter, and that the United States would not leave Asia to be a sphere of exclusive Chinese influence. I suppose that we will have to wait for the diplomatic history to be written in order to see whether the Administration was able to intelligently project strength and resolve on this issue.

But as I have argued before, the conflict on the Korean peninsula represents a failure of Chinese diplomacy, since the Chinese were not able to pursue and achieve their interest in preventing the United States from stating a claim of interest and concern over what goes on militarily in Asia. If the Chinese were as smart as many believe that they are, they would be using all of the diplomatic and economic resources at their command to prevent North Korea from exacerbating tensions any further, lest the United States decide that it needs to increase its presence in a region in which China wishes to establish its hegemony. Either the Chinese have failed to intelligently pursue their interests by not putting pressure on North Korea, or they have sought to do so, and have failed utterly, indicating that their diplomatic strength simply is not what many believed that it is.

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