Foreign Policy Blogs

Oh Charlie Brown… Insights on North Korea

“Oh Charlie Brownnnnn…” Year after year, Lucy tricks Charlie Brown to kick a football she inevitably pulls away. Each time it’s a new creative argument. Lucy promises the world and the temptation is so great that Charlie Brown overlooks history and everything else except kicking that ball. Drawn in, surely this time Lucy will hold the ball as promised and Charlie Brown will kick it to the moon. Unlikely.

Allured by the objectively noble prospect of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, America is paying less attention to the real threat in the Western Pacific. While nuclear weapons are an existential threat, North Korea is neither going to denuclearize nor use their warheads. To do either would be disastrous for them. As talks with North Korea commenced this week, America must resist being distracted by the dream of a nuclear-free Korea and remember the preeminent security threat of the next century is Chinese supremacy in the South China Sea.

North Korea is what economists call a rational actor: they act in their own self-interest. Their foremost goal is to perpetuate the Kim regime and North Korea will always act based on that objective. If Mr. Kim launched a nuclear attack, the response would be cataclysmic and would surely end his rule. Conversely, if he denuclearized, he would give up all the international leverage he has to stay in power. Mr. Kim is therefore very unlikely to give up his nuclear deterrent, but by engaging in talks with America he earns legitimacy and propaganda without concession. We’ve been here before.

However, the far greater threat is China’s imminent dominance of the South China Sea (SCS). China is challenging the international system built by America and its allies. For the first time in decades, a new economically viable alternative to the liberal world order is spreading. From thieving American commercial and military secrets to recruiting scientists, China is rapidly closing the technological gap with America and energizing its military and economy. With its One-Belt-One-Road initiative, China is investing in dual-use foreign infrastructure across a third of the world’s GDP at a rate up to 2-3 trillion dollars per year – 12 times the size of America’s Marshall Plan. Using unprecedented cash that the United States simply can’t match, China is luring nations into their sphere of influence.

Furthermore, Chinese investment comes without rules and lectures on human rights or democratic ideals, attracting authoritarian-leaning governments. China’s goal is to surpass the United States economy and become the world’s dominant military power by 2050, starting in the SCS. Carrying 60 percent of the world’s seaborne trade and the link between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, the SCS is a global choke point and the economic lifeline for many of the world’s nations. By establishing control there, China is using economic and military force to intimidate and coerce regional nations into obedience. If America doesn’t address China’s growing power over the SCS, it risks sacrificing the current international order for one much less favorable to freedom and democracy.

The centerpiece of America’s strategy to counter China’s weight in the Western Pacific was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP wasn’t just a free trade agreement, but an alliance, an evolution of NATO, designed for the region. Without it, Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) are an important stop-gap, but they will not roll-back Chinese fortification of the SCS. Similarly, military exercises and trade sanctions only have limited use. An effective strategy must draw the regional nations into American geopolitical orbit based on free and open political and economic governance. Being the global leader requires America to be a reliable partner and advocate for the democratic institutions its worked so hard to create. By living up to its principles, America can unite the regional and democratic nations through political and economic alliances, like the G7, to resist the spread of the illiberal order.

Each year that I flew missions in the SCS I saw the threat rings in my jet, drawn around Chinese claims and fortifications, expand and multiply. Soon, the US military won’t be able to operate there at all without being targeted by Chinese defenses. The allure of a historic political achievement—the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—is powerful precisely because it makes the world safer. But sadly, it’s an illusion and a distraction that is taking our attention away from what China is doing right now.

LT Peter Devine is a Navy F/A-18 pilot, he recently returned from the Western Pacific and teaches economics at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He is a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. The views expressed are his own and not representative of the Navy, the Naval Academy, or Truman National Security Project.