What China wants

Peter Tasker

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An anti-Japanese demonstration in Beijing 2012. Credit: WikiCommons

Asia’s Reckoning: China, the US, Japan, and the Struggle for Global Power
Richard McGregor
Penguin: 2017

The current face-off between North Korea and the United States would be entertaining if it were not so serious. On one side is a country of twenty-five million people with a car-crash of an economy that ranks below Haiti and South Sudan in terms of GDP per head. On the other is a superpower whose military spending is greater than that of the ten next largest spenders combined. 

Yet when President Donald Trump threatens the Kim Jong-un regime with “fire and fury”, North Korea nonchalantly promises to make the US “suffer the greatest pain it ever experienced in its history”.

How did such a state of affairs come to pass? The answer is the attitude of China, North Korea’s key ally and the source of the fuel imports on which it is totally reliant. China could switch the lights off in Pyongyang in a matter of weeks, but chooses not to do so for a number of reasons — not least because the current crisis is very much to its benefit.

If Trump does authorise military action, he will risk mass casualties in South Korea and confirm the worst fears of other Asian countries about US irresponsibility and adventurism. If, on the other hand, he backs down, the contrary impression will stick: that the US is a “paper tiger” that no longer calls the shots in the region.

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