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Korea: The bind Washington is in


Raoul Heinrichs

25 November 2010 12:43

As the chances of a reflexive escalation of this week's hostilities on the Korean peninsula gradually subside, the most probable and consequential risk of this latest conflagration, as Rory Medcalf has noted, is that it will further aggravate US-China relations, which have already deteriorated to their lowest point in many years.

In fact, there are signs that this is already happening. An American carrier battle group led by The USS George Washington (pictured) is steaming toward the Yellow Sea to take part in war games aimed primarily — though not explicitly, of course — at coercing China into reining in its recalcitrant 'little brother'. While the US has insisted that the exercises are pre-planned and not a response to the latest incident, the spectre of an aircraft carrier manoeuvring in the vicinity of China's maritime periphery will not be lost on Beijing, and will almost certainly result in diplomatic recriminations.

The latest crisis compounds Sino-American rivalry, and is symptomatic of it as well. Pyongyang's timing was typically opportunistic, reflecting an awareness that recent tensions in US-China relations would leave Beijing in no mood to succumb to American pressure to clamp down on the North.

If anything, recent disputes over trade and territory, and America's concerted efforts over the past month to begin assembling a balancing coalition against China (from Japan to India via South Korea, Indonesia and Australia), will have reaffirmed in the minds of Chinese and North Korean strategists the enduring, even increasing, importance of North Korea's role as a bulwark against American dominance.

This leaves the US in a terrible bind. With its credibility at stake, Washington has to do something – if only to uphold, or restore, South Korean faith in its capacity to deter these kinds of low-level provocations. Yet Washington has virtually no leverage over Pyongyang, whose carefully cultivated reputation for unpredictability make it hard to gauge the risks of even a limited military response.

As a consequence, Washington has few options but to outsource its North Korea policy to China, despite the fact that Beijing's strategic interests on the Korean peninsula are, at a certain level, fundamentally incongruent with its own. Greg Sheridan puts his finger on it in today's Australian:

The present dynamics actually suit China very well...Washington has not only had to pay bribes of aid and diplomatic face to Pyongyang to get it to come to the negotiating table, it often has to make unrelated concessions to Beijing to secure nominal cooperation from China in North Korean matters.

Photo by Flickr user UNC - CFC - USFK, used under a Creative Commons license.