Why the US is mistaken to take a softer line with China over North Korea

May 9, 2017

CNN | Rep. Mike Gallagher

Following Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States in early April, there is new hope that China will join efforts to crack down on North Korea's nuclear program. While the Chinese have acted to halt North Korean coal imports temporarily and the Trump administration has struck a conciliatory tone with China to gain further cooperation, the United States should be under no illusions that China will readily change its longstanding support of North Korea.

Rather than relying on flattery and accommodation to alter Chinese policy, we should recognize that the path to peace in East Asia runs through increased American leadership. The United States must demonstrate that any aggression -- whether emanating from Pyongyang or from Beijing -- will not go unanswered.

For decades, American administrations of both political parties have sought to use China's considerable leverage over North Korea to compel Pyongyang to moderate its behavior. While Chinese leaders have at times sounded cooperative, their actions have told a different story. Despite constant American efforts to find common ground over reining in North Korea, time and again, Beijing has obfuscated and deflected in the face of unmistakable North Korean aggression. Most famously, when North Korea sank a South Korean navy vessel in 2010, China called on both countries to show restraint. This moral equivalence between aggressor and victim would have been laughable if the circumstances hadn't been so tragic.

Even today, China has covered for North Korea while feigning otherwise. As public attention has focused on China's cessation of coal imports, total Chinese trade with North Korea has grown by more than 37% in the first quarter of 2017, compared with the same period last year. Moreover, China's attempted bullying of South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system demonstrates it is more concerned about limiting America's military capabilities in Asia than it is in reducing risks stemming from Pyongyang's aggression.

China's defense of North Korea should come as no surprise. After all, the two regimes share a foundation of domestic oppression and external aggression. Indeed, it is their common interest in overturning the American-backed order in Asia that drives their alliance.

At the end of the World War II, the United States made a conscious decision to play a leading role in Asia and to provide a security umbrella for our friends and allies. We took on this role not as a burden, but as an investment in the security and prosperity of the region.

Coupled with our economic and diplomatic engagement, American leadership in Asia helped South Korea, Taiwan and Japan grow into successful and mature democracies that share our desire for a free and stable world. Moreover, as economies in the region have grown, American companies and workers have enjoyed the opportunity to sell goods and services to rising middle classes around the world.

However, despite this enormous success, not everyone in Asia is happy with the American-led order. Both China and North Korea dream of a world where autocracies can bully their neighbors while the international community turns a blind eye to domestic oppression. That these behaviors come as a pair is no accident.

After all, autocratic regimes often seek to channel their people's frustrations at external adversaries, real or imagined. And in the case of North Korea and China, that adversary is the United States. Both countries have long deployed propaganda designed to bolster nationalist credentials and enflame anti-American sentiment, and despite periodic changes in temperature, their relationship is ultimately one of alliance.

Indeed, the central policy goals of both North Korea and China are directly at odds with almost a century of American statecraft. For Kim Jong Un, this means shattering America's alliances and reunifying the Korean Peninsula under his totalitarian rule. For Xi, this means driving American forces and influence outside of the island chain stretching from the Japanese home islands to the Philippines and returning Asia to Chinese political and cultural hegemony.

The alignment of Chinese and North Korean strategic objectives means that Beijing will not readily act to moderate North Korean behavior. If the United States is to extract more than empty promises from Chinese leadership, we must first demonstrate our resolve and our enduring commitment to peace and self-determination in the region.

The good news is that a more secure future is within our grasp -- if we have the willpower. First, we must immediately reverse the Obama-era cuts to our military. With more resources, we can begin to make good on President Donald Trump's goal of a 355-ship Navy, including 12 aircraft carriers. Coupled with a stronger military presence in Asia, we will make crystal clear to China that aggression will not be tolerated -- whether it comes from Beijing or Pyongyang.

In the South and East China seas, we must more aggressively challenge Chinese territorial claims. Recent reports suggest that the White House has been avoiding ramping up pressure in the South China Sea as it courts Chinese cooperation on North Korea. This is precisely backward. A resolute message of strength in disputed seas is far more likely to win cooperation than meek acceptance of Chinese expansionism. And on the Korean Peninsula, we must publicly stand up to Kim's attempted intimidation of South Korea. Each of these actions will have a mutually reinforcing effect. As we rebuild our military, we will be enhancing the effectiveness of our diplomacy.

After all, diplomacy does not occur in a vacuum. In any negotiation, the side with the greatest leverage tends to come out on top. Investing in our military means increasing our leverage at the international negotiating table. And moreover, as our diplomatic resolve strengthens in the South and East China Seas, Kim will be less likely to take aggressive action on the Korean Peninsula.

Critically, we are not in this alone. Our allies in the region have an indispensable role to play in helping to promote peace and security. While our bilateral relationships in the region are strong, we must further develop the American, Japanese and South Korean trilateral relationship. After all, it is South Korean and Japanese civilians who would bear the brunt of the casualties if war were to erupt with North Korea. Our allies intuitively understand the stakes in this mission, and we must stand unwaveringly at their side.

Beyond deterring Chinese aggression, we should also consider economic coercion to influence Chinese policy. As we seek to isolate North Korea economically, we should implement sanctions against Chinese individuals and firms that do illicit business with Pyongyang. The time for excuses is over. Because China accounts for more than 80% of all North Korean trade, it possesses unique leverage over Pyongyang. We must harness that leverage to weaken the Kim regime before it is too late and North Korean aggression leads to cataclysm. Ultimately, through projecting strength and demonstrating our resolve, we will be far more likely to achieve lasting denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula than we will through pursuing a conciliatory approach with China.

For more than 60 years, American foreign policy in Asia has been a remarkable and bipartisan success story. The Asia that emerged with assistance from the United States lifted millions out of poverty. Democracy spread across the region. And human rights became a pillar of governance. These achievements are worth celebrating -- and defending. The United States cannot and must not let oppressive regimes in China and North Korea undermine the triumph of the postwar era.

We must use all of the considerable tools at our disposal to relentlessly and ceaselessly defend the Asia -- and the world -- that we helped to shape. If we stand proud and act confidently in service of our interests and our values, we will ensure that the world for which our forefathers fought for will endure long after we are gone.

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