One of my favorite little bits of 25 cent philosophy is that in life, we have friends that we truly like, and friends that we tolerate. Friends that we like are those with whom we have interests in common, shared enjoyable experiences, and whose presence is a positive life influence. Friends that we tolerate are those that we keep around out of some sense of obligation but would rather avoid.
This sort of philosophy can, to a degree, be applied to nations as well as individuals. A case with increasing relevance involves the People’s Republic of China and two of its “friends”, North Korea and Iran. Where does each stand with respect to China?
North Korea: Clearly a friend that the PRC tolerates. An economic basket case; its citizens use the PRC as a sanctuary from extreme poverty and repression – considering that China is one of world’s poorest and most repressive regimes, that is saying something. It is ruled by a very possibly mentally unstable Stalinist dictator who appears to enjoy nothing more than stirring up trouble with South Korea, Japan, and the US into which China is dragged, like it or not. It is furthermore a criminal regime with its involvement in illicit weapons and drug dealings. China would have certainly thrown North Korea under the bus long ago if it were not a neighbor with whom there is a long history of alliance; to abandon which would make China appear as an unreliable ally.
Iran: A friend that the PRC genuinely likes. Aspirational regional superpower in the Middle East; oil exporter (albeit an inefficient one). Does not rely on China for economic or military support; while also arguably run by a possibly mentally unstable president there are checks on his authority not reliant on Chinese power. China has been cultivating a relationship with Iran for some years now and has been reluctant (at best) to help block its nuclear weapons program.
These relationships have recently taken on immediate relevance. The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by North Korea, a clear act of war, and North Korea’s sabre-rattling in response to South Korea’s reaction, show that the North is most likely looking for a conflict with South Korea and the US. Given North Korea’s reclusive nature it is nearly impossible to determine their goal with certainty; however, one can assume that a) anyone in the North with any sense knows that a Second Korean War most likely means the end of North Korea as a state, and b) in order to risk such a conflict, there is most likely an existential internal threat to the DPRK (perhaps the declining health of Kim Jong-Il along with the ascendancy of a pro-South faction? – Any thoughts are speculation…).
The PRC’s foreign policy apparatus undoubtedly sees this and sees an opportunity to help its “real” friend (Iran) while appearing to help its “tolerated” friend (N. Korea). Although the Chinese leadership are making the de rigueur statement of being committed to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, it’s not much of a stretch to see that this is, in reality, not the case. I can easily see the Chinese leadership presenting the Obama administration with the following choice: The PRC will “keep a tight leash” on North Korea in return for the US stopping its pressure on China to support tough sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. In essence, China would sacrifice the friend it tolerates (either the friend’s prestige in backing down in this crisis or its existence in a war) to further the interest of the friend it likes. An amateur response from the US administration (which I fear would be the case) would be to choose one of the two extreme choices – both of which are disastrous:
1. If we accept the prospective Chinese offer, Iran continues unfettered nuclear weapons development. More importantly, the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas unholy alliance is emboldened by the success of its Chinese patrons in relieving international pressure; Israel simultaneously sees the existential threat from this unholy alliance ratchet up. While the Korean peninsula may (emphasis on may, as Kim is not entirely predictable) be stabilized, the prospect for war in the Middle East approaches near certainty.
2. If we decline the prospective Chinese offer, Kim (or whichever hard-liners are in charge in the North) are given free reign. It is easy to see the situation spiraling out of control into a Second Korean War; while the outgunned North Korean regular army will eventually be defeated and the North Korean state terminated, the outset of the war would see massive Korean civilian and US military casualties at the hands of DPRK rockets, artillery, commando raids, and possibly nuclear weapons. Furthermore, with the US tied up in a third war (remember Clinton’s “win-hold-win” strategy? It’s overwhelmed here…), the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas axis has a free hand – and both they and Israel know it, which again could easily lead to a Middle East war.
The best answer involves decoupling the Korean situation from Iran; the Chinese need to be convinced that under no circumstances does a Second Korean War benefit their interests while joining a sanctions regime on Iran does. Does the Obama Administration have the wherewithal to accomplish this? I say this not as a Conservative or as a Republican, but as an American – I sure as hell hope so. The alternative is not pretty.