The United States have long urged the Chinese to take their “responsibility” and rein in their client state, North Korea. But would America really be better off if they did? A recent strategic simulation run by the crowd-sourced online consultancy Wikistrat suggests that the United States should be careful what they wish for.
In late April, Wikistrat, a strategy company that leverages a global community of hundreds of analysts, explored different ways the situation in Korea could escalate and trigger a conflict that draws in China and the United States. For each scenario, its members also postulated resolution pathways — how deescalation could be achieved.
Many of the scenarios required China to step up its engagement and either prevent or stop a Second Korean War. Before Kim Jong-un took over as leader from his father in late 2011, it was usually reluctant to chastise its ally, even when its erratic behavior irked the Chinese. It feared that if it cut off the regime, it might hasten its downfall and herald reunification of the peninsula on South Korean, i.e., American terms. China would rather keep North Korea as a buffer state between it and the nearly 30.000 US forces stationed in the South.
The young Kim’s seemingly reckless provocations, however, ranging from a nuclear to missile tests and threats of nuclear war, might have prompted the Chinese to rethink their policy. Its new leadership “is set on reshaping China’s role in the region and most of all sees Kim Jong-un as a nuisance rather than an ally,” according to one of the scenarios forecasted by Wikistrat — “one that can drag China into a conflict it does not want against an enemy it’s not ready to face.”
The United States responded to Kim Jong-un’s provocations earlier this year by deploying more strike assets to the region — which could also conceivably be used against China. Rather than putting distance between it and the Americans, then, North Korea enhanced China’s fears of encirclement. If Kim keeps this up, his paymasters in Beijing might decide that the risks of regime change in Pyongyang no longer outweigh the benefits.
Wikistrat strategized both the possibility of the Chinese engineering a coup and launching an invasion to depose Kim and his loyalists. In both scenarios, it identified his uncle Jang Sung-taek, who is seen as the power behind the throne, as his likeliest replacement.
A coup might actually be welcomed in Washington DC and the capitals of its East Asian allies whereas a Chinese invasion of North Korea would have more lasting repercussions. “China’s non-interference pledge will never be taken seriously again, prompting claimants in the South China and East China Seas to worry they could be next,” Wikistrat suggests. Once China has flexed its muscle and faced little resistance from the United States, which want to be rid of Kim too and have no desire to involve themselves in a war, hardliners there might decide it’s worth repeating this course of action in their island disputes with Japan and in Southeast Asia.
The United States, if they intend to make good on their “pivot” to the region, would have to expand their military presence in East Asia to allay their allies’ concerns about Chinese aggression — which could further raise Chinese apprehension and give nationalists the proof they need to argue that the Americans are out to contain China’s rise rather than to balance it.
A more Machiavellian China might even seek to preempt that by conditioning its intervention in North Korea on the withdrawal of some American army assets or personnel, a scenario Wikistrat likened to the 1962 Cuba crisis when the Soviet Union agreed to pull its missiles from the island only after the United States had agreed to dismantle theirs in Turkey.
Unlike was the case in 1962, such a deal could very well lead to greater tension in the Sino-American relationship. Hardliners in Beijing might interpret American behavior as weakness and convince themselves that, “if needed, Beijing can ask for — and receive — even more concessions in the future.”
In the United States, the exchange would likely invite strong right wing criticism of the administration’s China policy and initiate “a chain of conflicting declarations that makes China doubt the United States’ true intentions.” What started as the deescalation of tension in Korea then could trigger a real cold war between the twenty-first century’s two major powers.
The author is a contributing analyst for Wikistrat.