Engaging China to maintain peace in East Asia

While the U.S. remains involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, East Asia contains the seeds of potentially bigger conflicts. China holds the key to maintaining regional peace.

For instance, the Republic of Korea is imposing economic sanctions on North Korea after the latter sank a South Korean naval vessel. A military response could set off a retaliatory spiral leading to war. With 27,000 troops stationed on the Korean peninsula, Washington could not easily stay out of any conflict.

Less obvious but potentially more serious is the future status of Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China insists that the island, separated from the mainland by Japanese occupation and civil war, return to Beijing’s authority. The Taiwanese people are never likely to support control by the PRC.

Although China-Taiwan relations have improved with a new government in Taipei, Beijing may grow impatient as its power increases and be tempted to substitute coercion for negotiation. However, Washington has implicitly guaranteed Taipei’s security, which could lead to a serious military confrontation between the U.S. and China.

How to maintain the peace in East Asia? Washington must engage the PRC on both issues.

America’s relationship with Beijing will have a critical impact on the development of the 21st century. Disagreements are inevitable; conflict is not.

China is determined to take an increasingly important international role. It is entitled to do so. However, it should equally commit to acting responsibly.

As the PRC grows economically, expands its military, and gains diplomatic influence, it will be able to greatly influence international events, especially in East Asia. If it does so for good rather than ill, its neighbors will be less likely to fear the emerging superpower. Most important, responsible Chinese policy will diminish the potential for military confrontation between Beijing and Asian states as well as the U.S.

In return, Washington should welcome China into the global leadership circle if its rise remains peaceful and responsible. American analysts have expressed concern about a Chinese military build-up intended to prevent U.S. intervention along the PRC’s border. But the U.S. cannot expect other states to accept American dominance forever. Any American attempt to contain Beijing is likely to spark—predictably—a hostile response from China.

Instead, Washington policymakers should prepare for a world in which reciprocity replaces diktat. The U.S. could encourage Chinese responsibility by adopting policies that highlight the importance of the PRC’s role in promoting regional peace and stability. Such an approach is most needed to deal with the Korean peninsula and Taiwan.

For instance, Beijing could play a critical role in restraining and ultimately transforming the North. So far the PRC has declined to apply significant pressure on its long-time ally. In fact, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il recently visited China, presumably in pursuit of additional economic aid and investment.

His quid pro quo might have been a professed willingness to return to the Six-Party nuclear talks. But few analysts believe there is much chance of a nuclear deal whether or not these negotiations proceed—and almost certainly no chance unless the PRC is prepared to get tough with the North, including threatening to cut off generous food and energy shipments.

To encourage Beijing, Washington should suggest that China would share the nightmare if an unstable North Korea expands its nuclear arsenal. The North’s nuclear program would yield concern even in the best of cases. But the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is no best case.

The regime started a war in 1950 and engaged in terrorism into the 1980s. Pyongyang has cheerfully sold weapons to all comers. Worse, today it appears to be in the midst of an uncertain leadership transition. If North Korean forces sank the South Korean vessel, then either Kim Jong-il is ready to risk war or has lost control of the military, which is ready to risk war.