Saturday, May 22, 2010

On nothing

On Thursday, South Korea announced that it believed North Korea was responsible for the sinking of a South Korean naval ship almost two months ago. This followed a lengthy international investigation involving several Western countries. I vaguely heard of this announcement at work but didn't get a chance to read about it. When I asked a friend what Korean president Lee Myung-bak had proposed as retaliation, he smiled politely and said, "nothing". "Nothing?" I asked. "Nothing," he smiled, in that way Koreans tend to smile when embarrassed (the fine people at the Cheongnyangni branch of IBK laugh in this situation).

The reality, astutely recognized by many Koreans but few in the English-language sphere with the exception of one commenter at Foreign Policy. "US has no choice but to put up with North Korea", he wrote, and it's likely true. The reason, of course, is China.

Given North Korea's unpredictability and military strength, force is off the table. South Korea has painstakingly shown that its conclusions are justifiable and backed by the international community, but their eventual destination is nowhere but the United Nations. At the United Nations, meaningful sanctions will be sought but are impossible because of the Chinese veto. In essence, messing with North Korea is messing with China, the same way that no one can ever take on American client states like Taiwan or Israel despite their small size and ostensible weakness.

We have, then, a tangible example of the sort of consequences that China's rising status and moral ambivalence can have. An American delegation led by Hillary Clinton is actually in Shanghai right now to try and obtain co-operation and concessions on a variety of topics. They might have some success, but they will no more be able to make China part with North Korea any more than diplomacy will America give up its own cherished vassals.

China is a bit like the fat kid in the classroom: when it sits in Asia, it sits next to all of Asia. It borders North Korea, Pakistan, Myanmar and Afghanistan, among others. You could actually drive all the way from the Khunjerab Pass in the Karakorams near Pakistan to the Friendship Bridge over the Tumen River near North Korea. This constitutes a major axis of nuclear proliferation, but also a sign of Chinese power. Both the highway with Pakistan, the bridge with North Korea and all those billions of dollars going to Central Asian dictatorships are small gifts to Chinese client states.

As the article about Chinese loans notes, if China is going to assume a role as a global power, it will have to adhere to the rules of those institutions, not undermine them. This is precisely true of financial institutions, but also broadly true of the international community. Sadly, given the immense value of Chinese trade, it appears that not can or will be done. North Korean aggression will once again go unpunished, as will Chinese support for North Korea. Israel has shown that no amount of international scorn, justified or not, can match the support of one superpower, and Israelis live large.

Chinese support for North Korea can keep things stable enough there for the people to continue eating grass. No matter what sanctions of whatever kind are enforced at the UN, Chinese investment and aid will ensure that North Korea stays afloat, no matter how battered. Even as China pursues a free trade agreement with South Korea, you can be sure that China's emasculation of South Korea will result in precisely...nothing.

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