Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



After months of quiet diplomacy and flexing of military muscle, the Trump administration has convinced China that its North Korean ally must be dealt with harshly if war between China and the United States is to be avoided. The Pentagon confirmed last week that "strategic assets" might be sent to South Korea as a deterrent to North Korean "provocations." ("Plans for strategic assets in South Korea remain under wraps." Wash. Post, October 30)

Why would China's President Xi Jinping agree to a deal with Donald Trump when previous American presidents failed in efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions? Beijing belatedly understands that U.S. vital interests are at stake in Northeast Asia, and that it is determined to prevent North Korea from provoking war that would include America's allies, Japan and South Korea, and threaten American territory.

China too has vital national interests in Northeast Asia. These stem from the Korean War in 1950 when it sent troops into North Korea to prevent U.S. forces from advancing to the Yalu River and uniting the country under American control. Since then, China considers North Korea a vital strategic buffer between itself and Japan, and the United States.

In order to reassure China that it has no designs on North Korea and will not attempt to unity the peninsula, Presidents Trump and Xi will reach a tentative agreement during their summit next week on a Korean peace treaty that recognizes two independent states. And they would quietly agree to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. At present, South Korea has no nuclear weapons.

Skeptics ask why China would agree to Trump's tough talk on North Korea after being silent for years as Pyongyang built major nuclear weapons capability? Two reasons account for this: first, South Korea now toys with asking the U.S. to deploy tactical nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the Pyongyang's threat to unleash its armies against the South: and second, China finally recognizes that its ally, the reckless Kim Jung-Un, has gone too far by threatening the United States with long-tinge missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. For China, the risk of refusing to rein in North Korea has become too large.

Some argue that an agreement by two superpowers to impose a peace treaty on a small neighbor is inconsistent with their obligations under United Nations principles. But the right of self-defense is enshrined in the U.N. Charter and provides a powerful incentive to superpowers when a small neighbor threatens to trigger a war that neither wants.

An alternative scenario to this optimistic view assumes an ominous turn in the U.S.-China relationship. In this view, China rejects Washington's military buildup in Northeast Asia and declares it will not permit its ally, North Korea, to be intimidated by the United States and its allies. Beijing reinforces this policy by quietly deploying ground force units and missile batteries into North Korea, and resuming economic assistance to Pyongyang.

In this scenario Washington announces that it will shoot down the next North Korean missile that threatens Japanese territory. Depending on Pyongyang's response, U.S. forces would attack the North's missile installation that threatened Japan. The world then waits for North Korea to make its next move, and to China's response.

That's a scary scenario. But in reality, China's government would not have invited Donald Trump to make a state visit next week if it were also anticipating war in Korea. More likely is that Beijing and Washington have quietly agreed on measures to deescalate the Korean crisis and begin work on a peace treaty between North and South Korea. This would lead to the denuclearization of the peninsula and recognition of China's role as North Korea's protector.

President Xi Jinping, fresh from his impressive victory at the Communist Party Congress, is now undisputed leader of Asia's superpower. He and President Trump both have a vital interest in preventing war in Korea that would ruin their growing economic and political interdependence. How they eventually navigate to defuse tensions in the South China Sea will be another test of their willingness to use diplomacy to avoid war.

File last modified on Friday, 27-JUL-2017 8:47 AM EST

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