Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: The Obama Ultimatum

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To say North Korea’s recent actions and rhetoric have been anti-American would be an understatement. Within the past few months Kim Jong-Un has launched a nuclear test strike, cutoff phone lines with the U.S. and South Korea, barred South Korean workers from entering an industrial complex bordering the two Koreas, stepped up its military capacity, suggested countries shut down their North Korean embassies for the safety of their diplomats, and vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies.

Much of this is just tough rhetoric, a young leader trying to show he can “rule with an iron fist”, that he is able to rebuff “western interests”, and will not have his national sovereignty challenged.

Experts agree that North Korea could not strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. More immediately at risk would be South Korea, Japan, and other pacific island allied states. This is alarming for the U.S. as well, who operates a close to 30,000 troop force in South Korea. South Korean has responded with it’s own stern warnings to North Korea, that it will “strike back quickly” if the North attacks. Japan has recently begun ramping up its military capabilities partially in response to North Korean rhetoric. Factor in China’s proposed military expansion, and we have a full blown arms race in Asia.

This is not an issue of China versus Japan, as both sides are essentially on the same side. The Chinese government has recently expressed dismay towards its allies in Pyongyang, agreeing in principle to tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test strike.

The U.S., seizing onto this opportunity, has proposed what I call “the Obama ultimatum”:

“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”

“’The timing of this is important,’ Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. ‘It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.’”

“In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change… A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries.”

“’What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,’ Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.”

This article seizes on many issues brought up at Normative Narratives involving U.S. and Chinese cooperation on issues concerning the “global commons” (environmental, security, etc.). It also highlights the potential for closer Washington-Beijing relations as two supposedly progressive leaders take the helm of the first and second largest economies in the world.

But there are some issues holding back U.S.-Chinese relations. Issues of trust between the two superpowers exist; cyber-attack accusations have flown from both governments in recent months. Also, there are factions within China who believe it is in China’s best interest to have an anti-Western power in the Korean Peninsula. Some believe that if China came down hard on North Korea, even so far as to push for a reunification of the Korean Peninsula at some point in the future, this would bolster U.S. influence in the region and diminish Chinese influence.

And it is exactly because of this point that I like “the Obama ultimatum”. If China’s greatest fear is increased American military capacity in the Asian Pacific, Obama has just offered Xi Jinping a surefire way to check U.S. military capacity in the region.

Obama has essentially put the ball in Jinping’s court. The next move belongs to China. Will they rebuff the American offer in an attempt to show solidarity with North Korea and protect the interest of “national sovereignty”?

It makes little sense to think they would; when you consider the growth and development of China, there is no question as to which country, between the U.S. and North Korea, is a more important partner. Factoring in Japan’s stance and it makes little economic or military sense for China not to align itself with “western interests”.

Nothing should be taken for granted; historically nations have been known to do things against their economic interests in the pursuit of strengthening their political ideology. But in today’s globalized economy, where the political economy intersection is so prevalent in mainstream political thinking, it would be very surprising to see China not at least attempt to comply with Obama’s offer.

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