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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (November 4, 2003)

US-China: the next alliance?

Brad Glosserman (Director of Research at Pacific Forum CSIS)

(This article originally appeared in the October 30, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)

For most of us, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a distant affair, the stuff of diplomats. In fact, the results will have a profound impact on the future of East Asia. It is hard to appreciate all that is riding on its resolution. Some effects are obvious; others are less clear, but no less important. Ultimately, it could transform Northeast Asia and perhaps even the balance of power in East Asia.

The consequences of failure are not hard to imagine. A nuclear-tipped North Korea would put a stake through the heart of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It would cripple the international nonproliferation regime and encourage a number of other states to rethink past decisions to abandon nuclear weapons programmes. Nuclear dominoes are a possibility - and, if the past is any guide, North Korea could help like-minded governments proceed.

Failure to reach a negotiated solution could trigger a war in Northeast Asia, bringing untold devastation to both North and South Korea, and possibly Japan. War, or even the fear of war, could unleash waves of refugees. The economies of South Korea and Japan would be hard hit, and the ripples would spread through China as well, destroying the stability that is the prerequisite for economic development.

Failure to cap the North Korean nuclear threat would oblige Japan to look hard at the utility of its alliance with the United States. While a nuclear-armed North Korea should not in itself be enough to challenge the credibility of the US commitment to defend Japan, it could raise questions about US leadership and Washington's ability to manage regional security problems. Similarly, a North Korean nuclear weapon should not oblige South Korea to rethink its military posture, but, it might also be forced to reassess its views of American leadership.

Success would strengthen the NPT, reaffirm the antinuclear norm, and restore faith in US leadership in the region. If the deal unfolds as I anticipate, encompassing security, political, economic and energy components, then it would reintegrate North Korea into the community of Northeast Asian nations and beyond, and could ease the deprivation of the North Korean people. The mechanism created to confirm North Korean nuclear disarmament could be used for other military threats or, as I have proposed, the creation of a regional facility to dispose of the tens of thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste building up throughout East Asia.

Yet success could create problems of its own. The conventional wisdom in Washington now is that US-China relations are the best they have ever been. Beijing's efforts to help solve the North Korean crisis have been critical to this assessment.

While both countries want to see a peaceful conclusion to the crisis, there are increasing doubts whether their interests converge over the long term. In the words of one State Department official, the two countries have common aversions - a desire to avoid war and avoid a nuclearised Korean peninsula - but that is not the same as common interests. The Chinese government would like to extend its influence over the Korean peninsula: facilitating a settlement to this crisis would win it friends in both Korean capitals. The US needs to be concerned that South Koreans do not start looking to China for leadership in security matters. It may sound far-fetched, but rising anti-Americanism in the South, growing trade and economic links between South Korea and China, and China's desire to be the regional power could transform relations on the Korean peninsula, and those effects would spread throughout Northeast Asia.

Critics charge that the Bush administration is not thinking about the long-term effects of its "partnership" with China. In their more candid moments, some officials concede the criticism is on target. Yet even "engagers" admit there is no predicting China's future and that hopes for its democratic and peaceful evolution are just that - hopes. China and the US may yet find themselves in a competition for power and influence in Northeast Asia.

But Chinese co-operation is essential to a peaceful resolution of the North Korean crisis. That puts a premium on US efforts to find a modus vivendi for working with China, both in the short and long term. At some point, the US will have to reassess basic assumptions about its presence in the region. Do not expect it any time soon, but it seems inevitable - and the answers may be surprising.

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