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Winners and losers in the Korea crisis

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COMMENTS

21 December 2010 09:39

It's too early to be sure that China has done badly out of the crises on the Korean Peninsula over the past few months, and that America has done well. We should at least consider the possibility of the opposite outcome. Let's look at the two powers in turn.

America's robust support for South Korea has strengthened the alliance with Seoul and enhanced US standing as a strong and reliable ally in Japan and elsewhere in Asia at a time when China's rise is challenging American power. 

But does the benefit last' What happens next time the North stages a provocation, as it most likely will' America's strong stand has gone down well in Asia because it has carried a strong implication that America will take military action next time. But will it' That seems unlikely, because the US has no military options without risking a major war, and the costs of major war are not justified to prevent the kind of small-scale provocations that North Korea is doling out. 

So next time the North strikes the South, America will say the same things and issue the same warnings. This will not stop North Korea, and will not impress the South Koreans and Japanese.   

Of course, the US could think about a military response next time. It could look for a military option which inflicts real punishment on Pyongyang without provoking a full-scale counterattack. The US would calculate that the North's threshold for major war is quite high, given Pyongyang must recognise that war would destroy the regime.

But the North Koreans can make the same calculation about Washington and Seoul; their threshold for general war is high too, so North Korea could make an escalated counter-response to America's escalated response, still (they hope) stopping short of an attack large enough to provoke all-out conflict. The result would be an escalated, protracted and very risky exchange of blows, which the US could not bring to a decisive end without escalating further to major war. 

So America would be very unwise to escalate. That means it will have real trouble making a credible response to the next provocation. South Korea and Japan will be disappointed. Does Washington look like a winner then'

Of course that does not make China a winner, necessarily. Whether China gains from the events of the last few months depends on what it's being trying to do. 

We might assume that China has failed because its aim has been to demonstrate its power by controlling North Korea, or expand its influence by wooing South Korea, or both. But China has never claimed to control North Korea; it is the US that promotes the idea that Beijing has such control. So why should China see controlling North Korea as a test of its power, when they judge that America cannot control it either' Beijing may calculate that America's rash and easily falsifiable implication that it can stop further Northern provocations will make America look weak and China look wise.

Likewise, I don't think it has ever been part of China's plan to woo South Korea by promising to protect it from the North. Beijing's major card with Seoul is not its ability to control Pyongyang's actions today, but its central role in managing the consequences of the North's presumed eventual collapse. When Pyongyang crumbles, China will decide what happens, and Seoul will have to rely on Beijing to help manage the crisis and facilitate South Korea's absorption of the North. That remains true today, and it gives Beijing a strong hand to play. 

In fact, I have a hunch — nothing more – that China's refusal to even condemn North Korea may have been intended to punish South Korea for its recent lean towards Washington. Beijing wants to remind Seoul that there is nothing much Washington can do to help when push comes to shove on the Peninsula. The message to Seoul is, 'Do not think you can cosy up to Washington and still expect us to jump when you call. If you want our help with North Korea, you need to lean back towards us. In the end, we are more use to you than America.'

That message might well have some traction in Seoul if, next time Pyongyang misbehaves, Washington does no more than talk tough again. In which case we will have to revise our judgments about who has won and lost these last few months.

Photo by Flickr user Roberto Rizzato.

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