China? Nah, not so important

Even with the stakes undeniably ratcheted up by this weekend’s nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, President Obama would be very ill-advised to heed Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan’s warmongering op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Billed “What to Do About North Korea,” their strategy amounts to precisely the opposite, evincing a bomb-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality that will reap none of the rewards that they bizarrely claim will follow from their advised go-it-alone approach.

Blumenthal and Kagan’s chief objection is that Chinese participation in diplomacy — as well as, more broadly, diplomacy and the six-party talks in general — is an obstacle to detering North Korea’s nuclear program. While China’s reluctance to tighten sanction on North Korean leaders is indeed frustrating, it is mystifying to me how Blumenthal and Kagan can seriously contend that China “fears a unified, democratic, prosperous Korea allied with the United States” more than a nuclear-armed, impoverished state at its border, full of refugees waiting to tumble into China. A unified Korea is a laudable goal, but the notion that this prospect is achievable in the immediate future is laughable; and how an escalation of military tensions with North Korea could democratize the country is feasible only if one wants to ponder an Iraq-except-with-nukes scenario.

In two quick breaths, Blumenthal and Kagan advise the Obama Administration to “strengthen multilateral efforts to stem North Korean proliferation” and withdraw from the six-party talks. Even discounting the fact that isolating the United States in bilateral negotiations has long been exactly what the regime in Pyongyang has wanted, this is a bafflingly incoherent policy proposal. Strengthening multilateral diplomacy is generally tough to achieve when you are withdrawing from multilateral diplomacy.

Blumenthal and Kagan’s ponderous accusation that including China in North Korea negotiations is more about fostering Washington-Beijing relations is belied by the tenor of their own piece, which frets overwhelmingly about “ced[ing] influence” over Korea issues to China. Their strategy is thus not only to provoke North Korea, but to provoke China into tougher action on Pyongyang. With everyone — especially in the most affected countries, South Korea and Japan — talking tough right now, it is not the time for making adversaries out of allies. Even — or perhaps especially — with few attractive policy options for the United States, China’s leverage is something that needs to be used constructively, not haughtily dismissed.

(image of Chinese president Hu Jintao)