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North Korea: A Magnet Drawing the US and China Closer?

Tom Watkins, Advisor, University of Michigan Confucius Institute
April 17, 2013
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John Kerry, paying his first visit to China in his new role as U.S. Secretary of State, had more than a few hot issues to address with equally new Chinese leaders. North Korea topped the agenda, but cyber-espionage, Taiwan, and Iran, along with territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea also filled out their mutual agendas.  

Tom Witkins

Tom Watkins

Not since the signing of the Korean War Armistice in 1953, has tension been so high on the Korean Peninsula. How this issue is managed will help define China- U.S. relations well into the 21st century.   

Yet the goals the U.S. and China hold for the peninsula are not the same.  John Pomfret, a longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent and editor made clear in a recent opinion piece, "China’s main interest in North Korea is not denuclearization; it is ensuring that the North Korean government does not fall."  

Kerry delivered a stark warning to North Korea after his meeting in South Korea with President Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se: "Do not to test-fire a mid-range missile, a test that would be a "huge mistake" for Kim".  "If Kim Jong Un decides to launch a missile, whether it's across the Sea of Japan or some other direction, he will be choosing willfully to ignore the entire international community". Kerry continued, "It will further isolate his country and further isolate his people who are desperate for food and not missile launches," he warned. 

Because our two countries, China and the United States, today hold the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, all major global issues intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How our leaders address these issues will not only impact America and China, but all humanity.  

Certainly, the U.S. understands the importance of China in dealing with global issues.  Secretary of State Kerry's visit came than a month after the new U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew's China trip.  At this meeting China's new leaders reaffirmed their commitment to advancing the cooperative partnership based on "mutual respect and mutual benefit."  

How China and the U.S. relationship benefits from the provocative behavior from North Korea remains to be seen.  Yet in a meeting between Kerry and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi they agreed that their countries are committed to finding a peaceful way to ensure a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Both our governments attach a great deal of importance to enhancing this bilateral relationship aimed at building a new 21st century relationship between the world's two super powers. In fact, out of today’s crises comes a major opportunity to enhance China-U.S. collaboration and cooperation for the long haul. 

Yet behind the diplomatic speak there are many issues where American interests and values conflict with the Chinese: free and fair trade, human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, cybersecurity and territorial sea disputes to name a few. In spite of our differences, we share a huge range of interests including maintaining regional and world peace, promoting global economic growth, addressing global warming and combating terrorism.  

Gone are the days when America can thump its chest expecting the rest of the world to respond. China has its own internal concerns and geo-political considerations. The United States, as China continues to rise, (don't forget that China's economy was the world's largest in 18 of the past 20 centuries and may eclipse ours before decade's end) must accord China's interests more deference and respect while upholding our own.  

As China continues to gather strength on multiple planes this balance will become tougher and increasingly necessary. 

The Crazy Uncle - North Korea 

North Korea has made the region unstable, continuing to keep the world on alert. China, the U.S. and our allies must find both a short and long-term solution to this crazy behavior.  

China's newly-elected President, Xi Jinping said, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain." While he didn't name any specific country, the China's leader message was clear: China is losing patience with North Korea.  In addition, some China watchers also believe President's Xi's remarks were indirectly aimed, at least for internal Chinese consumption at the U.S, as well. While we "pivot to Asia", China views our move as encircling them in an attempt to thwart their continued rise economically and militarily.  

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger describes: "China's greatest fear is that an outside power or powers will establish military deployments around China's periphery capable of encroaching on China's territory or meddling in its domestic institutions."  

Beijing's military, if not it's Communist Party leaders and always on edge nationalistic people who suffered through a "Century of humiliation" at the hands of the West, see the U.S.'s "pivot" as yet another Western plan to contain China and infringe upon its legitimate internal and maritime rights. 

While ordinary Americans may not see our actions in this light, the Chinese do. As we so painfully know from history, perceptions can, and often do, give way to reality. 

China's View Of The World 

When I first traveled to China nearly a quarter a century ago, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief upon seeing the Chinese map of the world. China, or the Middle Kingdom, was in the center - unlike any map I had ever seen at home in the United States, always showing America dead center.  Before leaving China, I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of the world map from their perspective. It now hangs in my office as a reminder that people see the world from different perspectives.  

We need to remind ourselves that we live in a big world much like a kaleidoscope - full of constant and unpredictable change. How we manage and lead this change while bumping up against our allies and adversaries is up to us.  

America must stand steadfast in upholding our national interest and values as we assimilate and accommodate China's rise.  

THE Boao Forum for Asia, held on southern China’s Hainan island, has reached an important consensus from Asia: "Major Asian leaders want every country in the continent to ensure regional stability so that Asia will continue to enjoy its fast-paced economic prosperity."  

As the nuclear saber rattling continues from Pyongyang, North Korea demonstrates that no country is an island. Only through dialogue, collaboration, communication and cooperation, will we be able to maintain world peace where Chinese, Americans and all of humanity can prosper. 

To do anything else could prove deadly. 

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute board of advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation international advisory board.  He is the former Michigan state superintendent of schools, president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, FL. and is currently a U.S./China business and educational consultant.

 

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