It’s been my First Commandment, when it comes to international news, from the moment I first heard it on HERE & THERE in September of 2014: “Look at the map!”
The Commander was the Master of diplomacy with the Former Soviet Union, Ambassador Jack Matlock, and when he said “Look at the map,” he was talking about Ukraine.
He was making a comparison he said he had tried to communicate to the Obama State Department before the Maidan movement hit the Kiev streets. Consider, he cautioned, the relative existential importance Ukraine has for Russia and the United States, and consider as well, Russia’s logistical advantages in time of war. The differences, in both cases, could be seen on a map — measured simply in distance.
Of course, Putin cares more about the country next door than Obama or Trump do about one roughly 5000 miles away. And of course, this makes it much easier for Putin to steal or ruin a cross-border country’s territory than for anyone so far away to stop him.
What set me off on this “Look at the map!” reverie was a lead item in Sunday’s New York Times, headlined: “China, Feeling Left Out, Has Plenty to Worry About in North Korea-U.S. Talks.”
The excellent Times reporter Jane Perlez leads the story: “As the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepares for his meetings with the presidents of South Korea and the United States, China has found itself in an unaccustomed place: watching from the sidelines.
Worse, many Chinese analysts say, North Korea could pursue a grand bargain designed not only to bring the isolated nation closer to its two former Korean War foes, but also diminish its reliance on China for trade and security.
To take the last thought first: any agreement which moves North Korea into better harmony with its neighbors and the United States will have to benefit the North Korean economy and stabilize northeast Asian politics. This will necessarily involve some diminishment in China’s virtual monopoly on North Korea’s trade and security relations.
My guess is, China will gladly accept that diminishment for several reasons, primarily its expectation that a North Korea that is finally part of the global diplomatic and economic system will be less liable to create problems which China and the rest of the world could do without.
Furthermore, whatever reduction in China’s near monopoly on trade with North Korea and its privileged position as North Korea’s security guarantor is likely to be quite acceptably small. Why? Well, look at the map!
One thing the map shows is that you can find China “on the sideline” only if you tighten your focus to look at the Koreas by themselves. Widen out your frame and look left, and there’s China and China and more China. You get the idea
.Perlez has found some eminent scholars who are quite happy to focus on the 2-party talks. Mostly, she found one: Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, who is thinking big. “If a grand deal can be struck between Kim and Trump, in the form of denuclearization in exchange for normalization of bilateral relations, then Northeast Asia may see a major realignment.”
Why a realignment? Because, Says Zhang, of the impact the planned Kim Jong-Un-Donald Trump one-on-one will have on China “The loss of prestige is a big problem for China and Xi [Jinping], who wants everyone else to view China as an essential actor of international relations, especially in the Northeast Asian context. Now, suddenly, China is no longer relevant.”
Uhhhh, Dr. Zhang, could you, ummm, look at the map?
This kind of gaming-out big diplomatic negotiations is the fodder of today’s news world. The global equivalent of the “horse race” coverage of election campaigns. Annoying but not frightening.
What is scary is that this kind of zero-sum, win-big-or-go-home thinking has hallmarked the career of President Donald Trump, not to mention the strategic perspectives of his Strangelove security team of Pompeo and Bolton.
Negotiate with Pyongyang means beat Pyongyang.
And if China doesn’t like it, too bad.
Fortunately, Kim Jong-un seems to know better. His sudden trip to Beijing was a demonstration of 2 things which are now more generally apparent. First, he almost certainly explained his failure to send a representative to an earlier diplomatic meeting in Beijing by pointing to the conflict in dates. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as an important North Korean missile test. The test, and others of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, have left Kim convinced that his country is a nuclear power, and that this changes everything.
My guess is, Xi Jinping saw the logic in both assertions, and was not alarmed. I wish I could make the same guess of President Trump et al.
Hey Guys, North Korea is a nuclear power. And the meeting itself proves he’s right about his changed status.
Kim says “denuclearize” and means that he might halt testing, and further production, but will not surrender his nuclear arsenal. He’s heard about Qadafi. So has Xi Jinping, and he understands.
So, is North Korea standing with a pat hand on nuclear weapons, but freezing future development an improvement on the status quo?
I’m gonna put Xi down as a yes.
I’m also gonna say, for a near-neighbor of both, a peace agreement between North and South Korea is also better than an armistice, stipulating that peace does not equal unification.
But two Koreas which trade with one another and the world in an unrestricted manner, and try to be good members of the United Nations, the World Cup and the Olympic Games, who wouldn’t approve that?
And for Xi Jinping, the Double-Super-Bonus is a Korean peace treaty and any nuclear agreement with the US will Korean dramatically improve the lives of North Koreans and make them less likely to flee across the border to a China that does not want them, and, most important, is likely gradually reduce the number of American troops in South Korea, and a diminish the scale of joint US-South Korean military exercises.
So, for China, a little commercial competition, and less urgency of need for security protection for Pyongyang would be well worth the benefits of less belligerent and volatile relations between North Korea and South Korea, Japan and the US.
Second, can anyone doubt that on his visit to Beijing, Kim dynasts communicated that he recognizes what has not changed: the relationship between one of the world’s 2 greatest military and economic superpowers and the relatively tiny and impoverished state across a very permeable border.
Our determination has changed our global status, Kim Jong-un could claim, but unchanging geography still determines North Korea and China’s bi-lateral relationship.
Washington may like seeing Beijing “sidelined,” but our leaders would be crazy to forget, China not only has seen North Korea’s playbook, but it can, at any time, blow its whistle and change the whole course of the game on the field.
Any substantial agreement between North Korea and the United States can only survive with China’s consent. Obviously, consent will come easier of China feels it participated in the process, so “sidelining” is as damaging as it is ridiculous.
Any idea, at the NY Times or the White House, that Xi Jinping can be made “irrelevant” by some secret handshake between Trump and Kim is both dangerous and wrong.
Just look at the damn map!
Thanks for reading, and congratulations on seeing Amy Marash’s memorable illustrations. Big week this week – very good information on Syria, Cuba and the new emerging worldwide digital rulebook.