How Sino-US mistrust is keeping the Korean peninsula safe from war

Robert Delaney says the predictable call-and-response routine between Beijing and Washington after each new provocation from Pyongyang may seem repetitive, but the restating of positions is keeping military conflict at bay

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 1:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 7:16pm

Since last week’s unanimous UN Security Council vote for harsher sanctions on North Korea, we’ve been treated to yet another round of the diplomatic call and response heard since Pyongyang started trying to break in to the international nuclear club.

Let’s call it the “Sino-US Hollaback”. Here’s how it goes. China: We insist the US not seek a regime change, not seek a collapse of the regime, not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, and not send its military north of the 38th parallel. US: We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We are not looking for war.

And then, the two-way chant changes sides. US: We expect China to implement North Korea sanctions completely and aggressively. Otherwise, we’ll solve the problem ourselves. China: We have been implementing North Korea sanctions completely, and making unremitting efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

China and the US have shown unity on UN resolutions and censure but, once the official statements are read, it doesn’t take long for the deep-seated mistrust to become apparent. Nothing underscores the suspicion of the other’s intentions as much as the constant refrains above.

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As world leaders meet at the UN General Assembly this week, North Korea will almost certainly be a hot topic. So let’s have a quick refresher on why Sino-US rancour runs so deep. Most Americans might put this down to sharp differences in political ideology and an inclination for powerful states to be at loggerheads as their expansionist policies come into conflict. These are indeed significant factors.

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But that overlooks the diplomatic betrayals inflicted on each other over the past century. Diplomatic conflicts have defined the US-China relationship since the birth of America in the 18th century, but it makes sense to trace the bad blood back to an event that predated the People’s Republic but nonetheless became a basic lesson for the Chinese on relations with Washington.

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Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War, by British sinologists Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander, describes how, under pressure to secure Japan’s participation in the League of Nations, an initiative driven by then US president Woodrow Wilson, he supported a 1919 peace accord that handed Chinese territory to Japan.

As the book points out: “Japan’s activities in China during the war and her eventual triumph at Versailles led inexorably to the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the full invasion of China in 1937. The vicious war that ensued was characterised by terrible savagery on both sides, most notoriously ... the Rape of Nanjing.”

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While Wilson’s short-sighted decision caused decades of suffering for China and gave rise to the basic mistrust that animates its dealings with the US, it is all but unknown among Americans.

Betrayals went both ways, of course. Mao Zedong often made fools of US diplomats and academics who urged engagement with his leadership before and after 1949. US armaments sent to help Mao’s forces fight the Japanese, for example, often ended up being used against the Nationalists.

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Given this history, it’s little wonder why the US and China feel the need to make each other restate publicly, time after time, their position with regard to the endgame on the Korean peninsula. The “Sino-US Hollaback” might get repetitive, but the terms they make each other recite are reasonable. And the more they repeat them, the more difficult it becomes to do otherwise, it is hoped. In the face of the North Korean nuclear threat, repetition beats military conflict.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York