Can America Convince China to Subdue a Nuclear North Korea?

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

America should find a way to incentivize China to act, rather than try to shame or sanction it.

Dealing with China is preferable to dealing with the nuclear threat of North Korea. This conclusion follows quite logically from the following points:

• North Korea poses a serious threat. Michael Morrell, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated: “I believe that North Korea may have the capability today to successfully conduct a nuclear attack on the United States.” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe penned a recent editorial in the New York Times which states that “the whole world confronts an unprecedented, grave and imminent threat from North Korea.” One should pay no mind to those who “know” its rulers are not suicidal, that the missiles may melt on reentry and so on.  No one can tell. Hence, it is best to hedge for security, to be safe rather than sorry.

• China has the means to stop North Korea by stopping the flow of oil and other vital supplies. Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, has pointed out that cutting off North Korea’s oil supply “is one of the most radical measures China could ever take and it could have strategic implications if the regime’s stability is affected. . . . It is not going to be immediate but over time it could have an impact on the regime’s survival.”

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• The costs for China doing so are high. Altering the status quo in North Korea carries great risk for President Xi, who is worried about a flood of malnourished North Korean refugees into China, the advance of U.S. troops from the DMZ to the Chinese border, and losing its main ally. Hence, the United States needs to provide China strong incentives to make this move.

• Fortunately, because of salience differentials, there are incentives the United States can offer that are of very low cost. Nations tend to differ in the weight they accord to various national interests. This makes a deal possible when Nation A makes concessions in issues that matter little to it but that matter a great deal to Nation B in exchange for concessions on matters that rank low in Nation B’s priorities but that matter a great deal to Nation A.

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How can the salience-based bargaining method be applied to Sino-U.S. relations? First, the United States needs to rank its interests (not necessarily publicly). As I see it, stopping additional development of the North Korean missile and nuclear program—or, better yet, rolling it back—is very high on this list for obvious reasons. The question then is: what interest is salient enough for China to assume the high costs of pressuring North Korea to cap or cut back its program? And can the United States accommodate these interests at a low cost to itself? The best approach is to ask China what it would take to ensure its cooperation. (Its initial response may well be treated as an opening bid in a negotiation, and not the final offer.) However, for the sake of this exercise, let me try to figure out what China might seek and what the United States could quite readily afford to grant.

First of all, China might well have a high interest in gaining assurances that if the North Korean regime collapses and the two Koreas are unified, the United States will not move its troops to the border with China. (It may well prefer for the entire Korean Peninsula to become a neutral buffer zone). This is a no- or low-cost proposition for the United States, because once the North Korean nuclear program folds or the regime collapses, the United States should be quite content not to move its troops north.

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Second, China might well be very interested in the United States’ committing itself to removing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, which is currently being installed in South Korea. THAAD, the United States says, is intended to defend South Korea against North Korean missiles, and is not aimed at China. The system “does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China,” President Obama said after meeting with Xi Jinping in Hangzhou. But China was not persuaded. Chinese officials have argued that the THAAD radar can detect Chinese missiles on the mainland and undermine its nuclear deterrent. Once North Korea’s nuclear missile program is no longer an acute threat, the United States should be quite willing not to place THAAD in South Korea. Other measures may need to be added—once we find out what China is keen to gain and we can quite readily afford to give.

• Sanctions often do not work but even when they do, they are much too slow for the current threat.