Obama's China Card

Seat at Top Economic Table an Ace in the Hole
John Wohlstetter
The Washington Times
April 8, 2009
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After North Korea's test of a long-range ballistic missile, the Obama administration finds itself with a second bite of the geostrategic apple.

North Korea's missile test is no doubt a step in the direction of deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile; an orbital test or satellite launch is based upon the same rocket propulsion and guidance technology, and thus also serves as a ballistic-missile-technology test.

Neither the United States nor Japan could risk shooting down the test missile except to prevent an in-country impact. To do so under less exigent circumstances, given 11,000 guns pointed at Seoul from just over the 38th parallel, would have invited a confrontation democratic publics viscerally reject.

However, with the first stage falling between South Korea and Japan, overflight of Japanese territory, the test calls for firm action, having been conducted in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. But it appears China is determined to block additional sanctions against Kim Jong-il's regime.

The failure of the payload to attain orbit is a setback only if launching a satellite was the regime's goal. But given the North's record of repeated duplicity, a satellite may have been used as cover for an ICBM test. Mr. Obama noted Sunday that as the threat of global nuclear annihilation has receded, the threat of actual use of nuclear weapons has increased.

This latest development takes place against a sorry history of futile U.S. negotiations with North Korea - five administrations since 1985 have made one or more deals that the North broke. Serial diplomatic failures over two decades paved the way for the North's 2006 test of a nuclear device.

Amazingly, despite knowing the North had provided nuclear plant assistance to Syria, whose clandestine facility then under construction was destroyed Sept. 6, 2007, by Israel, the Bush administration took North Korea's name off the State Department's official list of terror sponsors. Because the North's violations have rarely been penalized, they have had little incentive to comply fully.

In 2001, the Bush administration tossed away its best geostrategic opportunity when China sought to enter the World Trade Organization. The United States could have vetoed entry, thus costing China enormously valuable preferential trade access. But we declined to pressure China - which supplies 80 percent to 90 percent of the North's energy needs - to cut off the North, which would have toppled the regime within months.

Allowing World Trade Organization entry in 2001 permitted China to remain a geostrategic free rider. Put simply, North Korea is a major thorn in America's side, and in the sides of America's Asian allies.

The partial core meltdown of the global financial system now gives us a new strategic lever. China desires a bigger seat at the diplomatic table for international economic affairs, in recognition of its immense importance to the global economy.

This opens the door for the Obama administration to press China to cut off energy and thus end Josef Stalin's ghastly bastard rogue-state, secured by the advance of the Russian army in the closing days of World War II. Instead, the administration plans to announce a 20 percent cut in missile-defense funding.

Leaning on China to trade something tangible for a benefit China seems entitled to requires setting aside the American preference to sentimentalize foreign relations. Put simply, we need sticks to succeed, not carrots in the form of financial aid, let alone yet another toothless resolution from the Security Council.

China may reject such a bargain. But at least it would pay a price for keeping North Korea afloat. Ending China's free-rider status is reason enough to pursue this second bite of the geostrategic apple, a morsel that will prove especially delicious if China ends the North's miserable, misbegotten, separate national existence - above all, ending one gathering nuclear nightmare the world's civilized people do not need.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute, author of "The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us," and founder of the issues blog "Letter From The Capitol."