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North Korea, China and Asia-Pacific Futures

Winter 2018 Tête À Tête

North Korea, China and Asia-Pacific Futures

Felipe CalderonGB discusses Pyongyang, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow and Washington with one of Asia’s leading strategists

GB: How should we understand China’s position on the North Korean crisis?

BK: First of all, we should understand China’s bottom-line position on North Korea. The Chinese and the North Koreans have never loved each other, and mutual distrust has grown under Kim Jong-un, whose aggressive pursuit of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental US has diminished Chinese security – for example, through the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea.

Still, North Korea poses a dilemma to which Beijing has no solution. Although Beijing has economic leverage over North Korea, it cannot deploy that leverage to the extent that there is a risk that the regime in Pyongyang will collapse. But to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programmes will certainly require pressures of that magnitude. Pyongyang considers its nuclear weapon and missile programmes to be existential in nature – vital and irreplaceable requirements of regime survival. Since what is at stake for Pyongyang is regime survival, no sub-existential pressures will dissuade North Korea from pursuing such programmes – that is, every other cost that could be imposed by China or anyone else is necessarily a lesser cost.

How can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at a time when it is already feeling internally insecure for a variety of reasons (including because of the cadre shakeup caused by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign), be complicit in the regime change of a fellow Leninist state? There are, after all, only five Leninist states left in the world – China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Laos. If the CCP is seen to be complicit in the destruction of a fellow Leninist state, that could – and indeed probably will – give the Chinese people very bad ideas about their own system.

The Chinese may go along with UN Security Council sanctions and signal their displeasure to Pyongyang in other ways, what the Chinese will do on North Korea will always fall short of American expectations, and short of what it will take to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and missile programmes.

For the CCP, that is just too great a risk. The most vital of all Beijing’s core interests is the preservation of CCP rule. Measured against that interest, all other risks and interests are of a second order. So while the Chinese may go along with UN Security Council sanctions and signal their displeasure to Pyongyang in other ways, what the Chinese will do on North Korea will always fall short of American expectations, and short of what it will take to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and missile programmes. This is a reality that the Americans have only recently and reluctantly come to recognize, even if I do not think that most Americans have entirely accepted it yet.

GB: What will China do if North Korea attacks the US?

BK: Nothing. Or nothing much. Some Chinese media – notably the Global Times – said, after Kim Jong-un had threatened to bracket Guam with missiles, that if North Korea started a war with the US, it was on its own. The Chinese know that a war with the US will jeopardize the most core of their core interests – namely, the preservation of CCP rule – because such a war cannot have a favourable outcome for China.

GB: What will China do if the US attacks North Korea?

BK: For the same reason – the preservation of CCP rule – China must respond in some way if the US attacks North Korea. Beijing cannot stand idly by while the US effects regime change in a fellow Leninist state. The legitimacy of CCP rule is at stake. That is why Maoist China, although infinitely weaker than contemporary China, had to respond during the Korean War and sent signals to the US that it had no choice but to do so. Unfortunately, those signals were not heeded.

At the same time, I think that the Chinese will limit their response, as they will not want to get into a full-fledged fight with the US – a fight that they know they cannot win. The Chinese will therefore do what they can, short of risking regime change in Pyongyang, to stave off such an American action.

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea and its actions in other theatres, such as bombing Syria while President Trump dined with Xi Jinping, have done much to restore the credibility of American power. Indeed, President Trump has a valid point when he says that unpredictability is an asset. The US under Obama was far too predictable.

GB: Is there an ‘exit’ to the Korean crisis? What is it?

BK: There is no ‘exit’ if by that we mean denuclearization. That is a pipe-dream. It is too late to stop North Korea from eventually getting the capabilities that it seeks. It can be delayed, but it will eventually get what it wants. So the only way to deal with North Korea is how you have dealt with all nuclear weapon states: through deterrence.

The North Korean leadership may be very brutal, but it is not mad. Pyongyang is rational and therefore can be deterred. Since its goal is regime survival, once it has the capability that it believes it needs to ensure regime survival, there is no reason for it to risk its own survival.

Of course, a peace treaty with North Korea would allow deterrence to be maintained at a lower level of tension. This is an idea worth pursuing seriously in tandem with maintaining deterrence through a show of overwhelming force. If I have understood statements by President Trump and US Secretary of State Tillerson correctly, this is something to which the US administration is open.

While they project confidence, the Chinese are as worried as anyone else about the possible consequences for China in the event that the present US-led world order should fall apart.

GB: What does China think of the present political situation in the US?

BK: My guess is that the Chinese are as baffled and concerned as everyone else. They may be a little gleeful to have some of the flaws of Western democracy exposed, but this is little more than a quite understandable and superficial Schadenfreude.

More essentially, while they project confidence, the Chinese are as worried as anyone else about the possible consequences for China in the event that the present US-led world order should fall apart. When Xi Jinping stood up at Davos in January 2017 and delivered an eloquent defence of globalization, it was actually a defence of the US-led order (for which ‘globalization’ is a short-hand term) and an implicit admission that there is no real alternative to this American-led order. After all, China has been among the greatest beneficiaries of globalization and the post-Cold War US-led order. It follows that China would be among the biggest losers if that order should crumble or the world should become protectionist. And the stakes are arguably higher for China than for the rest of us, as the legitimacy of CCP rule rests on growth, and China’s continued growth depends on the world remaining open.

China cannot replace the US as the leader of the current world order for the simple reason that in order to lead an open order, you must yourself be open. Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is a bold and ambitious vision. But it is not a substitute for the current order because it plainly rests on the foundation of the current order. Can OBOR succeed if the world turns protectionist? Can OBOR succeed if China gets into a trade war with the US?

Thus far, the CCP under Xi Jinping has opted for more central control rather than more economic openness or more room for the market to operate in key sectors. Here too China is in a dilemma. Beijing knows that the next stage of Chinese growth depends on giving the market a greater role in key sectors of the economy in order to make them more competitive. At the same time, the CCP wants to maintain tight central control. Can this circle be squared? No one knows. But we should all hope that the CCP succeeds, as I see no practical alternative to CCP rule for China. All the alternatives are worse.

GB: How do you see the evolution of Beijing-Moscow relations over the next five years?

BK: They will be more or less as they presently are: surface cordiality masking deep inner tensions – something more than a mere “axis of convenience,” as the scholar Bobo Lo called it, but also something less than the strategic partnership that Moscow and Beijing claim it to be.

Moscow hates being the junior partner to China that it has become, but what choice does it have? The West should think carefully about whether it is in Western interests to give Moscow no other choice. And it would be wrong to blame everything on Moscow. Ukraine was the dénouement of a fundamental Western mistake after the Cold War: to confound the USSR with Russia, and to treat the latter as a defeated power whose interests could forever be disregarded.

What links Moscow and Beijing is mainly a negative interest: discomfort with US dominance and a preference for a more multipolar world. At the same time, China has a far greater stake in the current order than Russia. Beijing is therefore happy to let Russia take the lead in confronting the US, while keeping its own relationship with Washington as stable as possible.

GB: How do you see the evolution of Beijing-Tokyo relations over the next five years?

BK: Again, more or less as they currently are: periods of relative calm, followed by periods of tension, and oscillations between calm and tension. But I do not think that the tensions will lead to conflict. The Chinese are well aware of the importance of the US-Japan alliance and, for all the reasons that I have mentioned, do not wish to get into a fight with the US. China and Japan are interdependent and, as rational powers, recognize this and deal with each other on this basis. They do not necessarily like this state of affairs, but they accept it.

The fundamental problem between China and Japan is that seldom in their many centuries of interaction have they had to deal with each other as equals. To be sure, neither is comfortable dealing with the other as an equal. Both have hierarchical cultures. Substantively, it makes little difference whether you are the largest, second largest or third largest economy in the world – that is, all three are going to be crucial economies. However, it makes a difference to your sense of self – to your identity.

What China wants of Japan and other countries in East Asia is not just recognition of its rise as a geopolitical fact. Japan, like all other countries in East Asia, does recognize China as a geopolitical fact. And yet China wants recognition of its rise as a geopolitical fact to lead to acceptance of its superiority as a norm of East Asian international relations in a manner akin to the traditional hierarchical pattern of East Asian international relations in which China was the apex. Of course, accepting China’s superiority as a norm is an entirely different matter from acknowledging China as a geopolitical fact.

Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the 16th century was an explicit rejection of the traditional Chinese order and a vital step in the evolution of the Japanese sense of self. Five hundred years on, I do not think that the Japanese are going to accept subordination to China. It would mean changing the definition of what it means to be Japanese. In fact, in dealing with the Japanese, and in terms of their ambitions in East Asia, the Chinese face yet another insoluble dilemma. To force acceptance of China’s superiority as a norm of East Asian international relations, China must shift the US from the centre of the strategic equation and occupy that space. But how to do so without provoking conflict, and how far can the US be shifted without causing Japan to lose faith in the alliance with the US (and American extended deterrence)?

If the Japanese begin to question American extended deterrence, Japan will go nuclear. It has the ability to do so very quickly, and has been preparing for this eventuality for decades – with American acquiescence. In fact, it is only a question of when, not whether, Japan will become a nuclear weapon state with its own nuclear deterrent within the US alliance – somewhat like the UK in the European context.

For its part, China is modernizing its nuclear force to ensure a more credible second-strike capability. There is nothing unusual or sinister in this, and it would be irresponsible for Beijing to do otherwise. But when China acquires a more credible second-strike capability, the question will surely be asked in Japan: will San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo? I believe that this is already being asked. And there is only one answer.

I do not know when exactly Japan will go nuclear, but North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes have almost certainly accelerated the thinking through of this option in the Kantei. We are therefore already at the beginning of a major strategic shift in Northeast Asia. When Japan goes nuclear, South Korea will surely follow. The process will be fraught with tensions, but in the end you are going to have a US-China-Japan-South Korea-North Korea nuclear balance – one that may well be more stable than the current situation.

In any case, a nuclear balance has the effect of freezing the status quo. In that sense, it is an absolute obstacle to the Chinese dream of a new hierarchical order with itself at the apex.

GB: How do you see relations between Beijing and Singapore over the next five years?

BK: This is a more complicated question than many people may think. You are therefore going to get a much longer answer than you may have expected. To understand Singapore-China relations, we have to keep two facts about Singapore in mind. First, we in Singapore never sought independence, but rather had independence thrust upon us when we were expelled from Malaysia – a process that we and the Malaysians politely call ‘Separation.’ Second, Singapore is the only ethnic Chinese-majority country outside ‘Greater China’ (defined as Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan).

What made ‘Separation’ inevitable was our insistence on a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ (a Malaysia based on the principle of multiracial equality) rather than a ‘Malay Malaysia’ (a Malaysia based on the principle of Malay dominance, as enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution).

Having, for the sake of a principle, been cast out on the perilous seas of independence, we had to make the principle work. And we did make it work. I am not arguing that Singapore is a perfect multiracial meritocracy – for there is no perfection to be found this side of heaven – but a country based on meritocratic, multiracial equality is in fact a very rare animal in Southeast Asia or in the broader East Asian or South Asian region. This social compact of multiracial, meritocratic equality is the foundation of modern Singapore and the basis of all that we have achieved. This is what makes Singapore, Singapore.

Singapore is the only ethnic Chinese-majority state in Southeast Asia – a region where the Chinese are typically not always a welcome minority. Too often our neighbours project onto us their attitudes toward their own Chinese minorities, and seek to structure their relations with us on the basis of the place that they see as right and proper for their own Chinese minorities. We have, as such, gone through a lot of trouble to ensure that we are not regarded as a ‘Chinese country.’

The story of Singapore since 1965 is the story of how the government and people rallied around the principle of multiracial meritocracy to overcome many challenges and, most improbably, built all that you see around you if you visit Singapore. We cannot compromise the fundamental principle on which modern Singapore is based without fundamentally changing the way our neighbours and the rest of the world deal with us.

How does this relate to relations with China? China conducts relations simultaneously on three tracks. All countries pursue relations on more than one track, but China does so far more systematically, and with a more highly developed institutional apparatus, than any other country. The first track is the official state-to-state track of diplomatic relations. As in all relationships, this naturally fluctuates up and down over time, but is, between China and Singapore, on the whole not bad – even quite good.

Within the official track, the Chinese state has three identities. For most of post-1949 Chinese history, China has stressed its identity as a developing country. This is now increasingly being overshadowed or displaced by its identity as a major power – particularly in East Asia and even more so in Southeast Asia where, like all major powers, China pursues its interests assertively.

Still, the Chinese state is not just an ordinary major power. It has two other identities – as a Leninist state, and also as a civilizational state. These identities prescribe the other two tracks along which China conducts relations. China as a Leninist state is characterized by certain techniques of statecraft that define the second track of relations. This can, for convenience, be called the ‘United Front’ track. The Soviet Union frequently used such United Front tactics in its early revolutionary years and during the 1930s when it was diplomatically isolated, with relatively limited official state-to-state relationships. By the 1950s, the Soviet Union, no longer as isolated as before, largely abandoned this track. Post-Maoist China is not internationally isolated, but still maintains a United Front Work Department under the CCP’s Central Committee. We have seen the operation of this track in Australia, Greece and recently Singapore, where we expelled a Chinese professor with American citizenship for being an agent of influence for a foreign power. We did not name the foreign power for obvious reasons, and I am not going to do so, but it does not take a genius to guess.

The third track, which flows from China’s identity as a civilizational state, is the Overseas Chinese track. For anyone interested in pursuing this in detail, let me strongly recommend a recent (2014) book by James Jiann Hua To, entitled Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese. The goal of this track is neatly summarized by the title of a 2014 speech by Xi Jinping to the Seventh Conference for Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations: “The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is a Dream Shared by All Chinese.” In other words, overseas Chinese should identify their interests with China’s interests.

In practice, there is a great deal of overlap between the second and third tracks. But in the Chinese system these tracks are institutionally and conceptually distinct. It is possible, although not at present very probable, that China may one day abandon or de-emphasize the second track, as the Soviet Union once did. However, China can never abandon or de-emphasize the third track without ceasing altogether to be China. This is a permanent reality that we must deal with. As China rises, this track will probably be more insistently deployed. As a majority-ethnic Chinese state, Singapore can expect to receive more than its fair share of attention.

China will be friendly – indeed, even generous – as long as we in Singapore accept their terms for the relationship. And the most important of these terms is the expectation that recognition of China as a geopolitical fact should lead to acceptance of China’s superiority and the primacy of its interests as a norm. This is the clear implication of China’s constant characterization of Singapore as a ‘Chinese country’ – a characterization that we have firmly rejected because it implies acceptance of the norm of China’s superiority. As the Chinese put it, a ‘Chinese country’ should ‘understand’ China better: ‘understand’ should be taken as a code word for acceptance of the norm of China’s superiority.

We reject this characterization because the norm that accompanies it could lead a multiracial country like Singapore down some very dangerous regional and domestic paths. It is not a big step from accepting China’s superiority (‘China’ as a defined and hence limited geographic space) to insisting on Chinese superiority. Singapore is only 52 years old, and it would be dangerous to assume that our country’s Chinese population’s Singaporean identity is so deeply rooted that none of our population will be tempted to take that step.

The core issue for Singapore is therefore existential. If we behave as China would like us to behave, the social-political compact of multiracial equality that is the foundation of an independent Singapore will be severely strained, if not entirely broken. Approximately three-quarters of our population is of Chinese origin, but that means there is about a quarter that is not Chinese. If our social compact is broken, it will not be easily put together again. Therefore, however friendly we may be in other aspects of our relations, we must resist China’s expectations in this aspect of relations – even at the cost of occasional tensions in relations on the official track.

GB: How do you see relations between Beijing and Hanoi over the next five years?

BK: I do not see much change: oscillations between periods of tension and periods of calm. The Vietnamese have some 2,000 years of experience of dealing with China, and the issue for them is also existential. As a Vietnamese friend once put it to me, Vietnamese leaders must be able simultaneously to stand up to China and get along with China. And if anyone thinks that this is impossible, he does not deserve to be a leader. To be sure, if Vietnam did not for two millennia know how to do this, then Vietnam would not exist today. It would be just another Southern Chinese province.

GB: Do you foresee possible conflict between China and India in the coming year or two?

BK: No, I do not. There may be skirmishes, but both have too much to lose. The priorities of both countries are internal, and both China and India are mature civilizations – well able to manage such tensions and minor conflicts.

GB: Do you see Australia as an Asian country?

BK: Geography is never only geography: it is a matter of political choice, and most Australians understand that their future lies with Asia. In that sense, the Australians have made the political choice to be an ‘Asian country.’ That choice is not undisputed or uncontested, but those who do not accept it are not in the Australian mainstream today.

GB: Can Canada become an Asian country this century?

BK: I see no reason why not, but Canadians have not made the political choice that the Australians have made. Canadian attention to Asia has to date been shallow and sporadic – probably because dealing with the US absorbs so much national energy and attention.

GB: Can Indonesia become a leading Asian power this century?

BK: Yes, provided they put their own house in order, resist the temptations of petty nationalism, keep Indonesian society inclusive by resisting political Islam, and pursue sensible economic policies.

GB: Is there a prospect of a formal Asia-wide security framework or architecture in the coming decade?

BK: No. There is no clear enemy for the region to coalesce around. No one wants China as an enemy. And while relations with China are complicated for everyone, no country in Asia views China as an enemy in the way, say, Europe and the US viewed the Soviet Union as the enemy. The pattern of relationships in Asia is far more complicated. While the major Asian powers may typically distrust each other, they are also aware of their interdependence.

GB: Will Singapore survive this century?

BK: Yes, it will. We have many challenges, but we are far better prepared to face them now than we were prepared to face the even greater and more dangerous challenges that confronted us in 1965 when we were ‘separated’ from Malaysia.

GB: You have argued publicly with Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and also previously in GB’s pages, about the proper strategic behaviour of Singapore as a small country. Can you explain the differences in your positions? Are there lessons here for how Qatar ought or ought not to behave in its present conflict with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf?

BK: It was a very sad affair. Kishore argued that small states should behave like small states, by which he clearly meant that we in Singapore should behave like a large state expected us to behave. I have explained earlier why we absolutely cannot do that – for it would be the end of modern Singapore. This is a fundamental point.

Of course, small countries should not go around poking larger countries in the eye. And this is where Kishore’s analogy with Qatar breaks down completely. The grandfather of the present Emir of Qatar was – to put it bluntly – a vassal of the Saudi Royal family, and defined Qatar’s identity in terms subservient to the Saudi royal family. The present Emir’s father staged a coup against his father in order to break that tie – in order to allow Qatar to develop its own distinct identity. That is the root cause of the current conflict. As part of that distinct identity, Qatar went around funding foreign wars that its neighbours considered inimical to their interests, and funded and gave refuge to individuals and organizations that its neighbours considered to be dedicated to the overthrow of their political systems. This was just asking for trouble.

Singapore does nothing of that nature – nothing like funding foreign wars or harbouring people or hosting organizations dedicated to subverting or overthrowing our neighbours or other larger countries. If we did that, we would deserve what we would get. But we do not go around looking for trouble. All we do is to insist on the right to be ourselves – to have our own identity – and to define and pursue our own national interests, and also not allow ourselves to be intimidated or seduced into allowing a larger country to define our identity or our interests. We can do no less without ceasing to be Singapore.

GB: What are the key economic and indeed general governance challenges for China over the next three years?

BK: The key issue confronting China is how to take economic reforms to the next stage, while maintaining central CCP control. Everything else is only a matter of detail.

GB: How would you describe the mentality of today’s Chinese strategic elites or leaders, as compared with Western or Russian strategic elites? What about the mentality of the next generation of Chinese strategic elites?

BK: Comparisons are always invidious, so let me just speak about China. The current Chinese leadership is both very confident and somewhat insecure – confidence and insecurity being two sides of a single coin and the consequence of justifiable pride in what China has achieved, as well as an acute awareness of China’s internal and external vulnerabilities. This makes China’s leaders ambitious but prudent – which in turn makes for stability.

My fear about the next generation, however, is that they will begin to believe their own propaganda about China’s rise meaning America’s inevitable decline. And it is when you believe your own propaganda that miscalculations occur.

It is simply not true that America is on a trajectory of absolute decline. The changes in the distribution of global power are relative, not absolute. And while the US will never be as preeminent as before, American society remains highly resilient and creative. Of course, if we judge the US only by what happens in Washington, DC, we might be forgiven for overstating or oversimplifying the country’s decline. But while American politics are now somewhat dysfunctional, the most important things in the US quite often take place outside of the political capital: in the 50 states, in research laboratories, in universities and in corporations. Indeed, all those who have underestimated American creativity and resilience in the past have come to regret it.

Having said this, it would also be a mistake to underestimate Chinese creativity, or Indian or Japanese or European creativity, or indeed Russian stamina and political will. It would be a mistake, too, to see this as just a simple binary, zero-sum situation between the US and China, where one country’s gain is necessarily the other country’s loss. The situation may not be quite multipolar – if by that we imply a rough parity between the various poles. It will instead be far messier for some time still, where it will be difficult for any pole – whether the US or China or any other country – to act unilaterally. This is a situation akin to what Ian Bremmer has called a “G-Zero world.”

For the last 200 years or so, the basic issue confronting the non-Western world was how to adapt to a Western-dominated international order. That order is now being changed by the very success of some non-Western states – China being the most notable, but by no means the only example: Meiji Japan led the way, only to be joined subsequently by the so-called Asian Tigers and India, in adapting to the Western order. By adapting to this order, these countries changed it. But what will replace the Western order is as yet unclear. I doubt that it will be an ‘Asian order’ – whatever that may mean. Meanwhile, the interregnum may be very long indeed. There may never be any clear replacement of the Western order. We shall see.


Bilahari Kausikan is the former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore. He is now Ambassador-at-Large.


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