Victor Cha at the CSIS explores several scenarios for how a crisis over North Korea in 2012 might turn into a larger standoff. Cha’s concise albeit unsurprising analysis correctly identifies Beijing as the reluctant party in a Sino-US-Korean partnership to contain the problem, because China wants stability rather than change on the peninsula.
The buried lede in the story, however, is Cha’s assertion that it is Chinese domestic politics, rather than calculation based on grand strategy, that compels China’s standoffish attitude toward Washington and Seoul. Indeed, Cha notes, Chinese domestic politics are what constrains the PRC from forming a grand strategy in the first place.
This is an assertion that begs for further exploration. What are the domestic political dynamics around the Korea issue? What could change inside of China – or inside of North Korea – to shift China toward the role of strong-armed peacekeeper? To what extend is China already using its leverage to quietly moderate North Korean behavior? What more could/should it do?
Clearly constrained by space, Cha leaves us with these questions. That should not keep the penny from dropping at Pacific Command in Honolulu or the State Department in Washington. The stratgy-making dynamic in China bears a growing resemblance to our own, and a shrinking resemblance to that of the USSR. Until we shift our understanding, it is we as much as the Chinese who risk making Northeast Asia the center of a new Cold War.