Thanks to sure-footed diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and Chinese leaders, the outrageous rhetorical threats of nuclear attack by North Korea have receded and, so far, Pyongyang has not carried out the two specific provocations it threatened – test launches of ballistic missiles and a fourth nuclear test.
Yet the increased danger from North Korea has not ended and vigilance remains essential. The governments of countries most endangered by Pyongyang are now asking a critical question: What to do?
Fortunately, the answer is clear: The U.S., China and South Korea, with the support of Russia and Japan, should bring to fruition the diplomacy they set in motion during the past weeks of acute crisis with North Korea.
This crisis has already enabled Washington to drop its failed policy of “strategic patience” toward Pyongyang and take a new more promising approach.
For the first time since taking office in 2009, the Obama Administration has embraced diplomacy — and close cooperation with China — as a means of capping Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
The administration has joined with Beijing in reaffirming the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula as a key element of the “strong, normal, but special relationship with China” that the U.S. is now seeking, in the words of Secretary Kerry.
During mid-April talks with Chinese officials, Kerry said the two countries “committed ourselves to find a peaceful solution [to the North Korea crisis]. And we say to Kim Jong-un and to the Government of [North] Korea… that they have an obvious choice here, which is to join us in an effort to find a negotiated solution.”
State Councilor Yang Jiechi confirmed that “China is firmly committed to upholding peace and stability and advancing the denuclearization process on the peninsula. We maintain that the issue should be handled and resolved peacefully through dialogue and consultation.” He added that “properly [addressing] the Korean nuclear issue serves the common interests of all parties.”
To implement their new-found cooperation on North Korea, it is now urgent that China and the United States coordinate closely on ways of increasing pressure on Pyongyang while also developing both political and economic incentives. Clearly, they have begun to do just that, with the recent visit to Washington of China’s envoy on North Korea, Wu Dawei, for consultations.
For this partnership to succeed, a balanced approach of pressures and incentives will be necessary, reflecting the common interest of the United States and China in peacefully resolving the dispute with North Korea. Together, the essential tools of diplomacy — sticks and carrots — can move Pyongyang in a positive direction, while avoiding a war on the Korean peninsula.
The larger significance of sharply increased cooperation between Washington and Beijing on North Korea is its potential for more broadly improving U.S.-China relations. Those relations dangerously deteriorated toward the end of President Obama’s first term when the administration declared it was “re-balancing” a significant number of U.S. military forces to the Asia Pacific as part of its “pivot” to the region. Many observers in China understandably saw this as an effective containment policy designed to carry out the strategic encirclement of China.
If the new close cooperation with China on North Korea proves successful, it will give the Obama Administration a major political and diplomatic opening to begin reducing the military friction that exists between the two countries over several longstanding security issues, including close-in American military surveillance operations near China’s coast and China’s overwhelming military threat to Taiwan.
Sharply reducing intelligence gathering by U.S. forces near China in exchange for Beijing’s significant reduction of military pressure on Taiwan — through eliminating short-range ballistic missiles as well as redeploying air and naval forces now threatening the island — would go far to creating greater stability in U.S.-China relations.
Fruitful cooperation on North Korea could also lead to a peaceful resolution of the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over the ownership of several uninhabitable islands near Taiwan, known to China as the Diaoyu and to Japan as the Senkaku Islands.
The United States recognizes neither Japanese nor Chinese sovereignty over the islands and has strongly urged a peaceful resolution — which could be accomplished by referring the issue to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, a UN-affiliated judicial body that resolves maritime conflicts.
For that to happen, though, the newly-elected right-leaning government of Japan, led by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, will have to acknowledge the existence of a dispute, which it has thus far refused to do. Abe’s recent nationalist declarations and increased assertiveness in the midst of the crisis with North Korea — which have led to a major push-back from Seoul and Beijing — can only harm American interests and the U.S.-Japan alliance by undercutting efforts to mobilize China’s support for constraining Pyongyang.
Just last week, Abe seemed to deny the truth of Japanese aggression during and prior to World War II when he said “the definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established… Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.”
The Japanese prime minister would do well to recall his own wise words uttered in 2007 during his first term in office, when he said he “agreed with the Chinese leadership that we together shall build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. There are numerous issues that can be covered — the environment, energy, North Korea, East Asian development, U.N. reform and others. I believe that our cooperation on these fronts will benefit not just Japan and China but Asia and the entire world.”
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