06/01/2020 No. 156
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A Grand Bargain
By Yung-Sheng Cha
February 1, 2017

There are three potential flashpoints in Asia between Washington and Beijing; they are North Korea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Any one of these could evolve into a major military conflict in the not-too-distant future.

The conflict in the South China Sea (SCS) is the result of the U. S. policy of "pivot to Asia" and is hyped by the news media and some pundits. Washington continues to send war ships and spy planes into the region and insists that the objective is to maintain freedom of navigation in the SCS so that U. S. allies in the region will not be affected. But China never said that it will block the passage in the SCS. China always wanted to maintain freedom of navigation in the SCS because it is vital to both trade and fuel (oil and gas) shipments to China. Freedom of navigation in the SCS is much more important to China than to the U. S. The SCS is only of peripheral interest to Washington while it is critical to the economy of China. Besides, Washington has a trump card in the conflict in the SCS. If China threatens to block the sea lanes, Washington can easily stop the fuel shipment from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq) to China by blocking the narrow strait of Malacca near Singapore (a close U. S. ally). If anything, it should be Beijing, instead of Washington, that should insist on freedom of navigation in the SCS. It is well known that the real motive behind the "pivot to Asia" is to thrust U. S. power into the SCS so that it can maintain Washington's hegemony in South Asia. Therefore the SCS conflict between Washington and Beijing is not likely to escalate further because the interest there is totally uneven and lop-sided (The United States has no strategic interests in the seas adjacent to China’s coast), unless the U. S. is willing to go to war against China for some peripheral interest. Furthermore, a majority of nations (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines) near the SCS do not wish to see conflicts between Washington and Beijing.

This leaves the remaining two potentially dangerous areas in Asia between Washington and Beijing that need to be addressed. There is not much time left (probably between five to ten years) for peaceful resolution of the conflicts. These lead to the main subject of this essay, a grand bargain.

The most pressing issue for the U. S. is the development of the nuclear weapons program in North Korea. The development of nuclear weapons and missile technology of North Korea over the last ten years has threatened the security of South Korea (an U. S. ally). If this is not stopped, the long-range missiles with nuclear warheads may eventually (probably in five years) become capable of reaching the U. S. territory. Washington tried everything, from economic sanctions to military threats, with little success, to stop North Korea from continuing development of its nuclear program. The U. S even enlisted some support from China to put pressure on North Korea. But China, mindful of the collapse of the North Korean government which may cause stability and security problems for China, did not fully support the U. S. The stalemate continues and the situation is getting worse as time goes by.

The situation across the Taiwan strait is also getting worse. The “President” of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and the Democratic Progressive Party (which controls the Parliament) refuse to accept the one-China policy of both China and the U. S. It is clear that Tsai is moving Taiwan toward independence. The people of Taiwan and Tsai think that they can do so because they have the support and protection of Washington. This false sense of security will inevitably lead to military confrontation between the mainland of China and Taiwan. In the mainland of China, there is already talk of unifying the country by force if Taiwan continues its current trend of development. The question is: how long will Taiwan last if it continues to move towards independence? Ten years from now, if the mainland of China decides to invade Taiwan, will Washington come to the rescue and be drawn into military conflict with the mainland of China? Do not forget that, ten years from now, China's economy will be as big as that of the U. S. Here again the United States has no strategic interests in the seas adjacent to China’s coast, other than to contain China and maintain U. S. hegemony in the western Pacific.

As is well known that North Korea is totally isolated from the rest of the world, and its only ally is China. Because of the U. S. sanctions, North Korea depends for its survival entirely on China for food, fuel, etc. It has become clear that, other than using unilateral action against North Korea (such as a pre-emptive strike), Washington must go through China to resolve the nuclear problems of North Korea. A pre-emptive strike against North Korea could have devastating consequences on South Korea and create instability in the region. China definitely does not wish to see an unstable North Korea and the collapse of the current regime. North Korea is an ally of China. China is unlikely to stand by and watch the collapse of the current North Korea regime. Therefore, a pre-emptive strike against North Korea is likely to draw China into the conflict, not to mention the devastating effects on the people of South Korea.

Some experts are calling for Japan to become a nuclear power to deal with China. But this is a very dangerous proposal because when Japan becomes a nuclear power, it no longer needs the protection of Washington. It may turn against the U. S. in the future (remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima).

The issue is then how to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula without creating instability in the region. All parties involved (China, the U. S., Russia, South Korea, and Japan) seem to agree that the only feasible way to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program is through China because the former's survival depends almost exclusively on the latter. So far, China has only showed lukewarm response on sanctions against North Korea even though Beijing has consistently stated that it wishes to see a nuclear-free zone in North-East Asia.  There is no real incentive for China to take serious action to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Some pundits believe that there may be incentives for China not to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program. New strategy and fresh thinking are needed.

Insecurity is the primary cause of the nuclear development program in North Korea. In view of what happened to Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Kim Jong-un of North Korea believes that possessing nuclear weapon is the only way for him and his regime to survive under the threat of U. S. and South Korea. To alleviate this fear and insecurity, Washington should promise not to attack North Korea if the latter dismantles its nuclear program. Similarly North Korea should promise not to attack South Korea. So a treaty of non-aggression is needed between North Korea and the U. S. (and South Korea). The purpose is to maintain stability in the Korean peninsula. This will be welcomed by the North Koreans and the Chinese. Second, Washington should promise to remove all the existing sanctions against North Korea so that the latter can begin to develop its economy. If North Korea accepts these offers, the next step should be the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U. S. and North Korea.

But just removing the sanctions and promising not to attack may not be enough to induce Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. If Pyongyang still refuses to accept the offer then Washington must engage China to join in the negotiation by offering China some incentive. 

What kind of incentive will be most effective in persuading Beijing to join Washington and seriously considering an all-out effort to stop the nuclear program of North Korea? The incentive should be related to one of the core interests of China. On top of the list is Taiwan. The mainland of China and Taiwan were separated as a result of the civil war in 1949. It is still separated today. The major barrier for unification is the U. S. which still supports Taiwan by selling weapons and promises to help defend Taiwan if attacked by the mainland of China (through the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress), even though Washington has consistently backed the one-China policy. Washington should tell Taiwan to accept that there is only one China. This is not new and is consistent with U. S. policy since 1972 when President Nixon visited China. Taiwan’s acceptance of the one-China policy is unlikely to be sufficient for the mainland of China to act on North Korea. Washington should move one step further and tell Taiwan to start negotiating with Beijing on how (in what form) and when (a time table) to reunite Taiwan with the mainland of China. If Taiwan refuses to do so, Washington can simply threaten to cancel the Taiwan Relations Act and leave Taiwan to deal with the situation all by itself.

It is interesting that Washington supports the one-China policy but still sells weapons to Taiwan, while Beijing wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula but still supports North Korea. It is absolutely not acceptable for Washington to have a nuclear-armed North Korea. It is absolutely not acceptable for Beijing to let Taiwan drift away from China. If Taiwan and North Korea continue to move in the current direction, then military conflicts are unavoidable in the near future not just between North and South Koreans but also between the mainland of China and Taiwan; and it is likely that Washington and Beijing will also be dragged into mutual military conflicts. It is therefore of great interest and utmost importance for both Washington and Beijing to stop the current trend in North Korea and Taiwan.

Washington has been playing the Taiwan card for a long time. Taiwan has been a bargaining chip against the mainland of China. In the meantime, the U. S. has been selling obsolete weapons to Taiwan to make some profit. On the other hand, even though North Korea is a military ally of China, one cannot rule out the possibility that Beijing is using North Korea as a bargaining chip against Washington. Beijing and Washington should do what they both preached in the past. For China, it is a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. For the U. S., it is one China.

If Pyongyang refuses to accept the offer from Washington (not to attack North Korea and remove sanctions), China can threaten to break the military alliance with North Korea and stop all the aid and assistance to Pyongyang, and tell the latter to deal with the situation (possibly a pre-emptive strike by the U. S.) all by itself.

The deal costs very little for all parties involved. Every country has something to gain: the gain for the U. S. is a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and for China is a peacefully unified China. A stable North Korea means the current regime will be in peace with South Korea and the U. S., and will be able to develop its economy and improve the standard of living for its people.  A unified China means Taiwan can maintain its current way of living without the fear of invasion by the much stronger China for an indefinite period of time. Taiwan will benefit greatly by reducing the spending on weapons and its economy will recover with the help of China. Without the deal, it is quite likely (maybe in ten years) that Beijing will resort to non-peaceful means to force Taiwan to surrender.

Some conservatives in the U. S. may criticize the deal by saying that it is a bad deal because it looks like Washington betrayed its friends in Taiwan. But Taiwan was betrayed by previous U. S. Presidents which include Nixon, Carter, Reagan, etc. when the one-China policy was adopted and continued over the past forty years.

That being said, there will be major barriers for each of the involved parties. The most difficult one to deal with is the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. He is a mad man and is unpredictable. Whether he will accept the deal is by no means assured. The second barrier may be China. The hawkish faction in China may not want to give up their alliance with their long-time and only ally. In the U. S. some conservative Republicans and politicians do not wish to see a unified China. In Taiwan, “President” Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party still dream that one day Taiwan will become independent, which eventually will lead to disaster for the people there. However, all of these barriers become minor when compared to peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Taiwan Strait.

According to people who know the next president of the U. S., Donald Trump, everything will be transactional. Trump himself said that everything is on the table and there is nothing to stop him from using Taiwan as bargaining chip for trade and other things in dealing with the mainland of China. He even hinted that he may reconsider the long-held U. S. policy of one China. To use Taiwan as a bargaining chip against the mainland of China is not a bad idea, although he did not specify the details. Reconsidering the one-China policy is not only a dead end but also extremely dangerous for Taiwan because Beijing is then free to use force to conquer Taiwan even if the latter did not declare independence. Furthermore, China will not cooperate on helping the U. S. in dealing with North Korea.


Y. S. Cha

January, 2017

Darien, Illinois 

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Yung-Sheng Cha graduated from the Mechanical Engineering Department of National Taiwan University in 1967. He received his MS and Ph.D. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Lehigh University in 1970 and 1973, respectively. He was employed by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1974 until his retirement in 2006. While at Argonne, his research focus was mainly in different energy systems. Dr. Cha is a U. S. citizen.
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